A baby’s scent works the same as drugs and food on a mother’s brain

Ever tell a baby “I want to eat you up?” That’s because you kind of do Photo: Serge Melki

WASHINGTON, September 30, 2013—Researchers at the University of Montreal have found that a newborn’s scent stimulates the pleasure centers of a new mother’s brain in the same way drugs stimulate the brains of addicts and food stimulates your brain when hungry.

The study, led by postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychology Johannes Frasnelli, was published earlier this month in the journal “Frontiers in Psychology.”

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“The olfactory—thus non-verbal and non-visual—chemical signals for communication between mother and child are intense,” explained Frasnelli, in a university publication. “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. 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.” 

And it’s not just the smell of a woman’s own baby, but the scent of babies in general that triggers this response in new mothers’ brains.

The study analyzed brains images of 30 women using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Fifteen of the women had given birth within the previous three to six weeks and 15 of the women had never given birth. Subjects were asked to smell t-shirts worn for two days by infants they were not related to and did not know. 

Even though the pleasure centers in all of the women’s brains were activated, there was a noticeably greater activation in the brains of the women who had recently given birth.

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

The researchers hypothesize that scent plays an important role in the emotional and motivational responses between mother and child, where the mother is driven to breastfeed and care for the newborn.

Scientists are still unsure of whether the activation of the brain’s pleasure center in new mothers is due to a response related to childbirth or whether it is a result of the olfactory experience that mothers and their newborns develop. 

“It is possible that childbirth causes hormonal changes that alter the reward circuit in the caudate nucleus, but it is also possible that experience plays a role,” Frasnelli said.

Regardless of what causes it, psychologists and researchers are not surprised that this area of the brain is stimulated, as the pleasure and reward center is designed to reinforce actions necessary for survival, like sex and eating. This mechanism can also work against human survival, by rewarding drug abuse and drinking. In this case, however, it strengthens the bond between mother and child, encouraging breastfeeding and protection.

“For those first few months babies are mostly just needing to be cared for and we don’t get much positive feedback from them,” said Diane Sanford, a psychologist specializing in maternal-child health, to USA Today. “So the fact that the pleasure centers are activated makes it more rewarding at a time when parenthood is very intensive and depleting. Our little receptors are lighting up and we have good feelings to offset all the hard work and exhaustion.”

It is unknown whether a newborn’s scent has any effect on men, since men were not part of the study. However, Frasnelli told USA Today Health that he thought a father’s brain would also react.

What is known, however, is that there is a significant neural response associated with newborn babies, the same one associated with drug addiction and food.


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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