Other animals are considerably better at detecting scents than we are, but our sense of smell is still impressive: Research estimates that the average person can distinguish between 1 trillion different odors!
We’ll explore your little one’s developing sense of smell below, but first let’s take a look at how odors help keep us safe, connect with others, and experience emotion.
Our sense of smell can:
• Help us enjoy food — Smell and taste are intricately linked. Without smell, we can only taste five qualities: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory. Every other nuanced flavor that makes eating enjoyable depends on smell.
• Help us determine if something is safe to eat — From the subtle odor of expired yogurt to the noxious fumes of bleach, our nose alerts us if something isn’t safe to swallow.
• Alert us of danger — Smelling things like gas and smoke help us avoid potentially life-threatening situations.
• Spark attraction — Research on attractiveness shows that subtleties in a person’s natural scent play a huge role in attraction. This goes for mates, friends, and even potential employers!
• Affect emotions — Our sense of smell is directly linked to the brain region responsible for emotional memories. That’s why the scent of rain can make you giddy if you jumped in puddles as a child, or the smell of rubbing alcohol can spark anxiety if you went through difficult medical procedures. Research even suggests that we can “catch” other people’s emotions through their scent! In this study researchers recruited a group of men to watch either a fear-inducing or disgust-inducing film, then collected their sweat and had a group of women smell it. The women who smelled the “fear sweat” responded with fear, and those who smelled the “disgust sweat” responded with revulsion.
Development & The Sense of Smell
A baby’s sense of smell begins to develop in the womb. Fascinating research shows that when pregnant mothers ingest things like garlic, anise, carrots and alcohol, their newborns prefer those scents (and flavors) over others.
Smell is your baby’s most advanced sense at birth, and it helps him do two important things: Find food and bond with you. In this study of mothers and their newborns, one breast of each mother was washed immediately after her baby was born. The baby was then placed between the breasts, and 22 out of 30 babies automatically chose the unwashed breast.
When it comes to bonding, studies show that babies are calmed by the familiar scent of primary caregivers, which encourages physical closeness. What’s more, a blanket that smells like you can help calm your baby when you’re not there.
When it’s time for solid food, your little one’s sense of smell is a star of the show because, as we mentioned earlier, it helps him enjoy the flavors of new foods.
As he grows, your little one becomes familiar and comfortable with smells—a sign of healthy sensory development. For some children processing smells isn’t smooth, and being over or under sensitive to scents interferes with functioning. It can be difficult to spot this in an infant, but if your toddler has intense reactions to smells, doesn’t respond to unpleasant odors, or smells everything and everyone he encounters, a pediatric occupational therapist can offer guidance.
Gently expose your little one to a variety of smells. This not only helps him become familiar and comfortable with smells, it also stimulates language learning and memory. Our BabySparks program is a great resource for fun and smelly activities you can do with your little one!