Connecting in Times of Crisis: Smell

Dr. Martha G. Welch describes how how smells that evoke emotional connection can calm us deeply, especially during stressful separation.

A newborn baby’s head. The smell of your husband’s pillow. Mom’s laundry detergent, or grandma’s special honey-baked ham with cloves. Smell is the closest thing to a time machine: it can transport you to a different time and place, and bring you closer to loved ones (even those long gone).

Take some time to think about smells that make you feel good or remind you of people you love. Are they food related? Seasonal? Nostalgic?

During this prolonged period of social distancing, we can find creative ways to use smell to connect.

The Nurture Science Program’s research focuses on emotional connection as a building block of health and well-being. In this blog series, we’re sharing insights based on our Family Nurture Care approach, which uses seven connecting activities to build and maintain emotional connection. Today, we’ll focus on smell.

Smell is a key element for supporting emotional connection.

Smell helps us survive and thrive—not just because that “off” smell lets us know not to eat bad food—but because meaningful smells can bridge time and distance, and provide our bodies with some of the hormonal and physical benefits of closeness. Emotional connection helps release the hormone oxytocin, which offers pain and stress relief. In fact, smell may be so powerful because there are oxytocin receptors in the same parts of the brain as smell receptors!

Smells that evoke emotional connection can calm us deeply, even therapeutically, especially during stressful separation.

In the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), mothers and babies have to endure long separations. It is stressful and upsetting for both, and can lead to lasting physiological and emotional-behavioral problems. Our research has found that exchanging scent cloths can calm both mother and child, acting as an invisible bridge between them. We tell moms to “bathe” in their babies’ scent. This sets them up for deeper connection and its biological benefits. One mother, who was recovering from a hysterectomy, reported feeling no pain when she smelled her baby’s cloth. Another mother, when separated from her baby in the NICU, used her baby’s scent cloth in the middle of the night to get back to sleep.

Today’s tip: Use smell to feel connected

  • Pay attention to smells that make you feel emotionally connected. When you hug, notice your loved one’s scent.
  • If you’re separated from a partner or your parent who wears a certain perfume or cologne, it can help to get a bottle for yourself. Just a small whiff of their scent can calm and reassure you.
  • If your child is having trouble sleeping, giving them one of your t-shirts to hold in bed (as if it were a blanket or stuffed animal), can help comfort them throughout the night.
  • Create smell memories with your family: cook together, or take walks and take turns smelling different flowers.
  • If a smell reminds you of a happy or painful memory, share it with someone you love. Reciprocal emotional expression is key to emotional connection.

Being more aware of your sense of smell will help you notice how often smell makes you feel warm, calm, and connected. Smell can help you tap into feeling connected, even if you are alone, and help you feel calm.

Let’s take care of each other,

Martha G. Welch, MD, DFAPA
Director, Columbia Nurture Science Program


  1. A Season of Giving | Einhorn Collaborative on November 8, 2022 at 11:06 pm

    […] Even when we can’t see each other or be together, we can still connect through our senses. One our most powerful senses is the sense of smell. […]

  2. […] this research article, as indicated in the beginning: “A newborn baby’s head. The smell of your husband’s pillow. […]

  3. […] Relationships with loved ones train our autonomic nervous systems over time that the sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste of a loved one can trigger a calming effect. This is what we call autonomic […]