Normal to be Addicted to Your Baby’s Breath

That newborn baby scent is addictive—science explains why

There’s nothing like that new baby smell. No parent will ever forget the sweet, subtle scent of the top of their baby’s head. When my son was young I would breathe it in for hours as he laid on my chest or napped, strapped to me in his carrier.

Sniffing the top of his little head made me feel so connected to him, and research suggests that the sweet smell is part of the connection. In fact, a study published decades found that 90% of moms can identify their baby by smell alone. And babies respond to mom’s scent, too. There is a very real connection there and, as reported by the Smithsonian Magazine, when researchers asked groups of women (moms and non-moms) to smell baby pajamas, the dopamine pathways in the adults’ brains lit up, and the reaction was stronger for the women who were parents.

For mamas, that baby smell causes a surge of dopamine. This reaction is a reward response, something smilier to what happens when you get the food you’ve been craving or even a drug you’ve been craving. The same way a surge of dopamine cause by using drugs encourages people to engage in drug seeking behavior, the surge of dopamine cause by sniffing our babies encourages us to stay close to them.

“These results show that the odor of newborns undoubtedly plays a role in the development of motivational and emotional responses between mother and child by eliciting maternal care functions such as breastfeeding and protection,” said Johannes Frasnelli, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Montreal’s Department of Psychology, where this study took place.

“The mother-child bond that is part of the feeling of maternal love is a product of evolution through natural selection in an environment where such a bond is essential for the newborn’s survival,” Frasnelli explained.

In an evolutionary sense, that amazing baby smell helps keep babies alive, and in a physiological sense, it can even help mothers relax. According to Swedish-language research magazine forskning.se, researchers in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm are investigating whether or not that smell could one day be used to treat depression. The team had 30 women smell little hats previously worn by newborn babies. As the women inhaled the scent the researchers studies their brains with a magnetic camera, Sciencenordic reports. Images were also gathered as the women experienced other smells. The results were compelling: The smell of the baby hats seemed to affect the women’s brains similarly to drugs used to treat mental illness. The researchers have now been given funding to try the experiment with men, but they’re pretty sure the results will be the same regardless of the sniffer’s gender. The Swedish scientists don’t know exactly why our brains love that baby smell so much, and note that the body odor of newborns contains about 150 different chemicals, so they’re still trying to pin down which chemicals are causing the reaction. The research is still years away, but the team hopes that a one day, a nasal spray capturing that sweet baby head smell may be developed and used to treat mental illnesses, including depression.

Newborn baby’s smell is as addictive as drugs or food: study

TORONTO – For women, smelling a newborn baby feels as good as drugs are to addicts or cheeseburgers to those just breaking a fast, new Montreal research suggests. A University of Montreal scientist says a newborn baby’s odour lights up the reward centres in our brain in a way other scents can’t. And for women – specifically moms – the experience, a rush of dopamine to the brain, is heightened. The reaction is so strong, it exists even if the baby isn’t in front of you. It’s chemistry between mom and baby. “What we’ve shown for the first time is the odour 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,” lead researcher Dr. Johannes Frasnelli said.

Frasnelli is a professor of psychology in Montreal. He recently collaborated with colleagues in Sweden and Germany in a project looking at how odor affects our brains. Do we react to the scent of a stranger the same way we respond to the scents of our family members or friends?

In this case, the scent of newborn babies was put to the test. Their pajamas they had lived in for about a day or two were frozen to capture the odour. Then, 30 women – half of which were moms and half weren’t – were put to the test.

Under an fMRI scanner, they were given shots of air, newborn baby scent and a third scent. They were then asked to describe the scents – in the case of the baby odour, it was typically described as “slightly pleasant” – while researchers studied their brain reaction. But the brain scans revealed that the limbic system of the women’s brains had lit up. And for new moms, the reward centre responded so strongly there was a marked statistical difference compared to the group of women who hadn’t had their maternal instincts kick in yet. Frasnelli said that if a baby scent can tap into our reward centres so strongly, it could explain why parenthood makes new moms and dads so happy. Even without the baby in front of them, the subjects’ brains were flooded with feel-good endorphins. Men were not included in the study, so Frasnelli is unsure if this is an innate human reaction or an experience exclusive to women.

He’s also unsure if the heightened reaction from moms stems from a learned reaction after spending time with their babies or if it’s a natural chemistry between women and babies.

The Smell of Newborn Babies Triggers the Same Reward Centers as Drugs

Newborn babies, parents swear, have a distinct smell. According to new research in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, that universal baby smell does not occur by chance but rather is a carefully concocted perfume of biological manipulation, evolved to trigger maternal bonding.

Smells have long been associated with mother-child bonding. Babies can recognize their mother’s smell, past research indicates, and moms likewise can do the same for their children (even their poop). Now, this new paper teases out the mechanisms behind that olfactory bonding, at least on the mother’s end.

Researchers recruited 30 women for their study, 15 who recently gave birth and 15 who did not have any children. They asked the women to try and identify various mystery scents, including the smell of a newborn, taken from a baby’s pajamas. While the women sniffed, the researchers watched their brain activity via fMRI.

Most of the women struggled to pinpoint the baby smell, although they generally said it was a pleasant one. Their brains, however, told a different story. When sniffing the baby pajamas, the dopamine pathways in a region of the brain associated with reward learning lit up, LiveScience reports. Other odors, like those of delicious foods, trigger this pathway, and the same dopamine surge is also associated with satiating sexual and drug-addiction cravings. This mechanism influences us by triggering “the motivation to act in a certain way because of the pleasure associated with a given behavior,” Medical Xpress writes.

Although all the women reacted this way to some extent, the mothers had a much stronger reaction than the non-mothers. “For moms the sensation one gets when sniffing an infant presumably feels even more like the feeling of having obtained food,” Christian Science Monitor writes. This finding left the researches with a sort of chicken-or-the-egg puzzle, however. LiveScience explains: The researchers aren’t sure if new moms undergo a hormonal change that leads to this surge of dopamine or if their reaction is influenced by the experience of smelling their own baby, the researchers say.

“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 in a statement. The researchers did not test whether or not men also undergo this same dopamine spark when sniffing an infant, though finding that answer would hint at the mechanism behind women’s reactions.

Moms may be “addicted” to that new baby smell

New moms, ever wonder why you just can’t get enough of that baby? It might come down to your nose. A small study shows that a pathway linked to the reward center of the brain becomes very active when women who just gave birth get a whiff of a newborn.

“The olfactory — thus non-verbal and non-visual — chemical signals for communication between mother and child are intense,” Johannes Frasnelli, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychology, said in a press release. “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,” he said. “It is in fact the sating of desire.”

The researchers tested newborn smells on 30 women. Half of the women had given birth three to six weeks before the experiment, and the other women did not have children. The smells were collected from pajamas that newborns were wearing two days after birth, and none of the babies belonged to the mothers in the experiment.

The women were asked to breathe in the odor. While both groups of women said they liked the smell, there was more activity in the “dopaminergic system of the caudate nucleus” of the brain in the new mothers. This area, which is located at the center of the brain, is responsible for reward processing and releases dopamine, a chemical messenger that encourages reward-motivated behaviors. “This circuit makes us desire certain foods and causes addiction to tobacco and other drugs,”

Frasnelli explained. “Not all odors trigger this reaction. Only those associated with reward, such as food or satisfying a desire, cause this activation.” In simpler terms, this means that new moms craved newborn smell like it was delicious food. The researchers believe that this response to the odor might have to do with how a mother-child bond develops. The mom’s brain perceives having the child near as a reward, and this may encourage more maternal care activities like breast-feeding.

However, researchers were unsure if the new moms’ brains were activated because of childbirth itself or if they developed the response because of their own positive experiences with their children. It was also unclear if this same effect happens to new fathers, because they were not included in this experiment. “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,” said Frasnelli.

Science says the newborn baby smell is as addictive as drugs

I have never suffered from addiction to anything (unless you count coffee and over-priced footwear), but put me anywhere near a baby, and I can literally feel my body reacting instantly, like my brain and entire reproductive system are screaming at me that there is a baby nearby (and that I need to make another one for myself.)

Much the same way I will assume alcoholics feel when walking passed a pub, no? (When you replace the making a baby with ordering a pint, of course!) Turns out, I don’t have to keep defending myself as some sort of a crazy baby-hoarder anymore, I can actually blame it all on an actual, fully-fledged addiction. That’s right. According to a study by the University of Montreal, for mothers, smelling a newborn baby feels every bit as good as drugs are to addicts – or cheeseburgers to those just breaking a fast. The Canadian scientists are claiming that a newborn baby’s odour lights up the reward centres in our brain in a way other scents just can’t.

And for women – specifically moms – the experience, a rush of dopamine to the brain, is heightened. In fact, the reaction is so strong, it exists even if the baby isn’t in front of you. It’s chemistry between moms and babies. “What we’ve shown for the first time is the odour 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,” lead researcher Dr. Johannes Frasnelli said. Frasnelli, who is a professor of psychology at the Montreal-based university, recently collaborated with colleagues in Sweden and Germany in a project looking at how odour affects our brains. In this case, the scent of newborn babies was put to the test.

Their pajamas they had lived in for about a day or two were frozen to capture the odour. Then, 30 women – half of which were moms and half weren’t – were put to the test. Under an fMRI scanner, the women were given shots of air, newborn baby scent and a third scent. They were then asked to describe the scents – in the case of the baby odour, it was typically described as “slightly pleasant” – while researchers studied their brain reaction. But the brain scans revealed that the limbic system of the women’s brains had lit up.

And for new moms, the reward centre responded so strongly there was a marked statistical difference compared to the group of women who hadn’t had their maternal instincts kick in yet. According to Frasnelli, this reaction a mere whiff of a baby have on our brain’s reward centre can go a long way in explaining why parenthood makes new mums and dads so happy. As in; even without the baby in front of them, the subjects’ brains were flooded with feel-good endorphins.

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