One of my favorite things to do is to show mothers how their baby can smell them from as far away as 1 to 2 feet. I will hold the baby and engage the baby with my eyes, while telling the mother to watch what happens. The baby always turns her head after a few seconds and looks towards the mother. The baby can find her mother simply by smelling her. Babies can focus their eyes only about 8 to 10 inches, but they can smell from a much further distance.
How does this happen? We know that the nasal cavities are developed as early as the second month in the womb. Smelling and tasting begins early during fetal development.
By the fifth month of development in the womb the baby is swallowing and sucking. Babies swallow about a half liter of amniotic fluid every 24 hours. The amniotic fluid is then digested by the baby. The nutrients enter the baby's blood. The baby filters out nutrients back to the mother via the umbilical cord. The mother's blood transports it to her kidneys and eliminates the waste. This is one of the reasons testing the mother's urine during pregnancy is so important. By testing the mother's urine we have an idea how both the mother and the baby are doing.
We are what we eat. We also smell like the food we eat. When we eat a significant amount of garlic, we tend to smell like garlic. It is believed that the food the mother eats flavors the amniotic fluid.
Our sweat can also have an odor depending on what we eat. So taking that into account it should be no surprise that the baby knows where mommy is by smelling her. Remember the nasal cavities have been functioning since month 2. All the baby has ever known is the smell of mama, the taste of mama and the mama's heartbeat.
After birth, the umbilical cord is cut. The umbilical cord has been the baby's source of nutrition, connection to mama, her lifeline.
It is no wonder that the baby now relies on that early development of smell to find the smell that she has always known. We also know that in the first few days after birth, the mother's body produces a sweat similar in scent to amniotic fluid.
Taking into account that the baby has been able to suck and swallow since around 5 months, it just makes sense that when you put the baby on the mother's chest after birth that the baby would find her way to where her next site of nutrition is, the mother's breast.
A few years ago everyone was talking about the role pheromones play in stimulating attraction to another person. Pheromones are hormones that are in our sweat. It is believed that we are attracted to others who have a pheromone that is pleasing to our sense of smell. Are all relationships based on a combination of biology and chemistry? It would be hard to deny that assumption.
Watching a new mother and baby in the first few days after delivery it is amazing to witness how they examine each other with their senses of touch, vision and taste. Our adopting mothers go through the same progression of holding and smelling.
There are sure a lot of pheromones, what some call the love hormone, going on with these couplets. What a privilege it is to witness these new relationships follow their instinct to connect with each other.
Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital's Family BirthPlace. Her column appears every other week in Healthy Living. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.