The scent of a newborn baby really does tap right into the pleasure centers of a woman's brain, whether the smell comes from her own baby or someone else's, scientists have discovered. The new findings have been described in a study just published in Frontiers in Psychology.
"These are the areas of the brain that are activated if you are very hungry and you finally get something to eat or if you are a drug addict and you finally get the drug you were craving," says study co-author Johannes Frasnelli, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Montreal.
"Apparently nature has provided us with a tool that helps with the bonding between a mother and her newborn child. It's very strong."
To look at how a newborn's smell affects the brain, an international team of scientists rounded up 30 women, 15 of whom had given birth three to six weeks earlier. The other 15 had never had a baby.
While the women were in a brain scanner, the scientists presented them with either the scent of a newborn baby or just fresh air. The researchers captured 'essence of newborn' by taking t-shirts that babies had worn for two days and then freezing them in plastic bags until the scent was needed for the experiment.
While all the women reported that the newborn scent was pleasant, there was a difference on the brain scans between the new moms and the women who had never had a baby: as soon as the newborn scent was detected, the pleasure centers of the all the women sparked, but in the new moms they lit much brighter.
We've most likely evolved to respond that way because the birth of a baby shakes up the world of any new parent, Frasnelli says. The helpless baby needs some way to make grownups care.
"A mother with her first child goes from living life in a couple to all of a sudden having to care for a little human being who cries whenever it wants and whom you have to clean up after. It's a big, big disturbance. It could be seen as something unpleasant, and yet most parents get pleasure from it."
The researchers haven't looked at the impact of newborn scent on dads, but Frasnelli suspects fathers' brains will also react.
Image: Mother and newborn, via Shutterstock