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Why Do People Want to Smell My New Baby? Science Explains

by Vannessa Rhoades 29 Sep 2023
Why Do People Want to Smell My New Baby? Science Explains

Have you ever felt an overwhelming urge to take a deep breath when you hold a newborn? If you said yes, you're definitely not alone. What is it about babies that makes us instinctively want to inhale their scent? 

And let's be honest: sometimes the aroma emanating from your newborn might not be so pleasant. So, what should you do if your baby doesn't smell good for some reason? We’ve scoped out the latest research to provide you with answers to these and other fascinating questions about the smell of newborn babies.

Why Do New Babies Smell So Nice?

Although no clear answer exists as the source of the brief “newborn baby smell,” one theory points to the influence of amniotic fluid and vernix caseosa. These fluids cover newborns after their time in the womb. This theory suggests they contribute to the fleeting, distinctive newborn scent lasting a few weeks. In a 2019 study comparing amniotic fluid to newborn head scent, differences were found, indicating the unique nature of the newborn smell. This aroma acts as a potent identifying marker. Remarkably, an older study from 1987 noted that 90 percent of women could identify their infants by scent within 10 minutes to an hour.

Apart from acting as a distinctive marker for parents, a 2013 study found that the scent of a baby stimulates the dopamine pathways in the brain associated with rewards, akin to the response triggered by delightful food smells or fulfilling cravings. The study revealed that mothers displayed a stronger brain reaction to the newborn scent compared to non-mothers, hinting at potential hormonal changes during labor. It's basically a chemical reaction that’s similar to what happens when you eat sugar. Since this smell makes moms feel so nice, it encourages them to stay near their baby and care for it so they can continue to experience the “high.” Researchers speculate that this surge in dopamine may aid mothers in coping with the fatigue of caring for a newborn, whether due to chemical changes from labor or memories associated with their own baby.

Why Do People Want to Smell My New Baby? Science Explains

When Does the New Baby Smell Go Away?

The newborn smell tied to vernix gradually fades within weeks or months as the substance is resorbed. As babies' skin interacts with the world and they grow, the unique scent diminishes. However, parents and adults continue to find their own children's body odors appealing as they age. While the vernix's influence wanes, other glands, particularly in the head region, contribute to pleasant smells in prepubescent children. Unfortunately, this delightful scent decreases during the teenage years as hormonal changes result in different body odors.

Uh, Oh…Why Doesn’t My Baby Doesn’t Smell So Great?

Occasionally, you might lean in for a baby sniff only to encounter an unexpected less-than-pleasant aroma. When this occurs, it's a good idea to stop and identify the underlying cause. There are several potential reasons for unpleasant baby odors:


Newborns frequently have bowel movements, and although their poop isn't the most pungent, it can be unpleasant. The best way to solve this issue is to change their diaper! You’ll also want to make sure you’re using a proper disposal method to eliminate the odor. We love the Munchkin UVC Diaper Pail, where odor control meets germ control in this sleek nursery must-have that uses the power of hospital-grade UV light to eliminate odor-causing bacteria and germs.


Milk residue

Given milk dribbling during feeds and frequent post-feeding spit-ups, catching a hint of sour milk smell is quite normal. Despite quick wipe-downs after feeds, the residue can accumulate in your baby’s sweet little neck and body creases. The remedy? Bath time! Remember, opt for sponge baths until their umbilical cord fully detaches. For a quick wipe down, we love these gentle soothing chlorine-free Burt's Bees Baby Wipes, made with aloe and vitamin E.


Other medical issues

On rare occasions, unusual and potent odors can be associated with uncommon conditions. One example is maple syrup urine disease, named after the maple syrup-like scent of affected infants' urine. While rare, it's serious if not addressed promptly. If you’re concerned, consult your pediatrician. 

Why Do People Want to Smell My New Baby? Science Explains

The Bottom Line

New baby smell isn't just a myth; it's been scientifically investigated! While its origin isn't definitive, researchers believe it enhances the parent-baby bond post-birth. Studies indicate that the brain's response to this smell parallels the reaction to consuming sugar. Regrettably, the new baby smell lasts just a few weeks to months, but all infants possess it. If your newborn doesn't smell pleasant, it might be due to a strong poop or old milk residue. That said, if you're concerned about your baby's scent, it's advisable to consult their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

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