Results of studying the smell of kids — and when the attraction wears off
You may have never sniffed a baby. It’s totally understandable; unless you have young siblings or a family member or close friend who has recently given birth, there’s not a lot of chances to really smell what a baby smells like.
But many people who have smelled a baby will comment that they smell peculiarly good. Mothers, especially, often comment on how good their baby smells.
This is odd, because babies don’t put on perfume, and are often uncomfortably associated with various bodily fluids (poop, pee, spit-up…). Why would a baby smell good?
As it turns out, this is likely an evolved trait. Parents, especially, are susceptible to this form of nose-based warfare, in which the scent of a baby or small child triggers instinctive protective emotions and reactions.
And as good scientists, we’ve studied this connection. We’ve asked questions like:
- Are male or female parents more susceptible to “baby smell intoxication”?
- When does a child stop smelling so good to parents?
- Do baby boys or girls smell better?
- Are baby boys more appealing to dads, while baby girls are more appealing to moms?
It may not seem like the most important research, compared to global warming or deadly diseases, but we do want to understand how this bonding works. After all, maybe we can help make sure that we can guarantee optimal parent child bonding!
“Baby smell intoxication” versus child’s age
Our first question is all about the age of the child. At some point, a baby must no longer smell as amazing to parents. But when does the pleasurable scent wear off?
It turns out that it sticks around for a while — we’re talking about years, here. In a survey of nearly 300 Polish parents, the parents rated their children’s scent on a scale from “very pleasant” to “very unpleasant.” Overall, as the children grew from infant (under 4 years old) to post-puberty (over 14 years old), the average child smell rating dropped. It wasn’t until the children were past 14 years old, however, that it fell below the baseline.
(What was the baseline? Parents were also asked to rate the smell of their partner. This was taken to be the baseline, given that it’s someone who is loved/in regular contact, but will likely not be influenced by any hormone-driven affection.)
Here’s a figure from their results:
As you can see, for children under 4 years old, they are wildly accepted to be amazing-smelling, with more than 80% of respondents rating them as “very pleasant” to smell (remember, this is for their own offspring). As the child gets older, the smell drops in pleasantness, until, by age 14 and older, the child only smells about as good, on average, as the parent’s spouse or partner.
“Baby smell intoxication” versus gender
What about gender? Does gender have an impact, considering either the gender of the child or that of the parent?
Despite what we may guess (it’s more commonly mothers who rave about the smell of a fresh baby), the survey results told a different story. There did not appear to be any significant difference when considering:
- The sex of the parent
- The sex of the child
- The sex of the child versus the parent (do fathers prefer the smell of daughters versus sons)
If anything, mothers may have found their children slightly more smelly as they grew older, but it wasn’t enough to be significant:
Overall, parents regarded their children as smelling pretty good, up until puberty — amazing for the first few years, and then decently good throughout childhood (averaging around 80% in the “pleasant” range, versus 20% in “unpleasant”).
What should we take away from this?
It’s great to know that science supports the popular idea that babies smell amazing, but how can we make best use of this in our own lives?
For those of us who are parents, this helps emphasize a way in which we bond with our child(ren), even subconsciously. Time spent together will trigger hormonal bonding, thanks to the instinctual urge to protect those around us who are vulnerable and also smell so good. But even when we know the secret, even after we’ve seen behind the magician’s curtain, we can still appreciate it.
For those of us who are not parents, this may help to alleviate some fears about future children. It can be hard to know, when pregnant or considering pregnancy, whether you will be able to love and properly care for a child. We each need to answer this question to ourselves; no one else can answer it for us.
But it may be reassuring to know that, from the moment a child is born, our own body will help make sure that we feel the drive to protect and care for it. Evolution wants us to ensure our offspring survive, and one method for doing so is to imbue parents with strong protective urges.
And if you ever need to feel a burst of hormone-driven love, just pick up your child and get a good sniff.
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