Your Newborn's Developing Senses

Taste & Smell

What your baby tastes and smells:

Researchers are just starting to understand the olfactory senses in infants and to explore the role they play in brain development. They do know, however, that taste and smell are closely related.

Scientists suspect that the sense of smell develops largely after birth. Within the first week of life, however, a newborn is capable of recognizing the scent of his own mother. One study showed that at 5 days old, babies could smell the difference between a breast pad that had been used by their mother and a new pad. Formula-fed babies have also exhibited the ability to distinguish their mother's odor from other scents. "The sense of smell is very important for infant bonding," says UCLA's Dr. Kellman.

Other studies have observed babies reacting differently to a variety of smells; one study actually found infants exhibiting signs of pleasure when exposed to fruity scents, like a lemony after-shave lotion.

At birth, a baby is capable of detecting three of the four main tastes: sweet, sour, and bitter. Of these, most babies show a marked preference for sweet tastes, says Gary Beauchamp, Ph.D., director and president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia.

The one basic taste a newborn can't perceive is salt. "If you were to give a newborn salty water, he would drink as much as he would plain water," says Dr. Kellman. Researchers suspect that the salt receptors on the tongue develop after birth, probably by 4 months.

Boosting your baby's skills:

Researchers are not aware of what, if anything, can be done to enhance a baby's budding olfactory senses. However, parents can discover any sensitivities a baby might have by gauging her reactions to the smells and tastes she's exposed to. If you are breast-feeding, you may notice that the foods you eat affect your baby's sucking. As your baby gets older and begins to eat solid foods, you can expose her to different flavors to see if she exhibits any preferences.

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