Kirsten Andersen


Study finds newborn baby smell is addictive

Kirsten Andersen

MONTREAL, September 30, 2013 ( – Craving the smell of your newborn baby?  Scientists at the University of Montreal can explain why.  Researcher Johannes Frasnelli and an international team of scientists studied the brains of 30 women – 15 mothers who had given birth three to six weeks prior, and 15 who had never had babies – and found that especially for new moms, the smell of a newborn baby activates the same pleasure and reward centers in a woman’s brain as drugs do for an addict, or food does for the hungry.

In other words, new babies really do smell good enough to eat – and good enough to create real physical cravings.

“What we have shown for the first time is that the odor of newborns, which is part of these signals, activates the neurological reward circuit in mothers,” Frasnelli said in a press release announcing the study’s publication.  “These circuits may especially be activated when you eat while being very hungry, but also in a craving addict receiving his drug. It is in fact the sating of desire.”

To study the neurological effects of new baby smell, Frasnelli and a team of scientists at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on the brains of 30 women as they sniffed pajamas that had been worn by newborn babies for their first two days of life.  Half of the women studied were brand new mothers, while half were childless. 

While both groups showed activation of the brain’s dopaminergic system, or “reward center” in response to the scent of the babies, new moms got by far biggest boost.  The smell of a newborn baby provides moms with a hit of dopamine, the brain’s “pleasure chemical,” therefore rewarding the mom who cuddles her baby close with strong feelings of positivity and well-being. 

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“Not all odors trigger this reaction,” said Frasnelli. “Only those associated with reward, such as food or satisfying a desire, cause this activation.”

Frasnelli told NPR he thinks the physiological rewards tied to a baby’s scent are what seal the bond between mothers and their babies despite the difficulty of the early days of parenting.

“[Y]ou're living your life as a couple, everything is going fine and all of the sudden you have this little human being in your life that is actually, if you look at it from an objective point of view, actually pretty annoying,” said Frasnelli. “Everything the baby does is sleeping, crying, and other than that you have to change the diapers. Still, most of the parents say this is the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me. And so how does this work? And we think the sense of smell helps us to understand the mechanisms that make this very strong attachment.”

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