Holiday food, your grandmother’s perfume, or the musty pages of a favorite childhood book: all of us have had the experience of smelling something that conjures powerful feelings of love, calm, or longing. Whatever it is for you, your emotional response is swift and strong.
The smell center of your brain (the “olfactory bulb”) is directly connected to the centers of emotion and memory (the amygdala and hypothalamus). We may react reflexively to smells because the communication between those centers happens faster than our conscious thoughts can keep up with.
Interestingly, these centers all contain oxytocin receptors (oxytocin is known as “the love hormone”), which play an important role in our social and emotional connections, especially in the mother-child relationship. Research suggests that oxytocin may also help us process socially relevant odors (like the unique smell of your baby’s head).
The more we learn about how complex our sense of smell is, and the role it plays in our health, the more we realize how intrinsically smell informs our experiences of being alive in the world (and even our ability to survive). And yet, many people don’t think of it as one of their most important senses. Until they lose it.
A recent study found that nearly 50% of people who had been infected with COVID-19 had an altered or lost sense of smell (some studies report as high as 86%). Even for those who have recovered from the virus, their sense of smell (and taste) may have remained changed, or may not have returned at all.
Columbia University’s COMBO (COVID-19 Mother Baby Outcomes) Initiative has been studying the effects of the pandemic on mothers and babies since March of 2020. Through their newly formed olfaction team, they are partnering with the Monell Center to gather a breadth of research on how smell, or the lack thereof, is impacting moms and babies.
Dr. Dani Dumitriu, Director of Translational Research at the Nurture Science Program, and Chair of the COMBO Initiative, says, “So far we are actually not seeing objective prolonged loss of smell in moms who have recovered from COVID on smell testing. But I’ve heard moms talk about how when the smell comes back, it’s different. Things they used to enjoy a lot all of a sudden smell bad, or vice versa.” For new mothers and babies, this can have frightening implications. “We know that on average (even before the pandemic), moms who suffer from congenital or acquired loss of smell have more trouble with things like emotionally connecting.”
What does emotional connection mean for moms and babies?
Mother-infant emotional connection is foundational to how our species survives, and it’s built through sensory-emotional inputs. During pregnancy, babies’ and their mothers’ autonomic nervous systems are in constant communication with each other via their senses and emotions (like mom reporting excitement and reassurance when she feels the baby move, baby tasting the food mom eats, and baby hearing mom’s voice). By the time a baby is born, mom and baby’s bodies have already built a deeply interconnected relationship.
This relationship during pregnancy conditions body-to-body reflexes, which prime mom and baby to be attracted to each other after birth. Attraction helps them respond to each other’s sensory and emotional cues, which is essential for thriving—for example, mothers may begin to leak milk when they hear their baby cry, and babies show eating behaviors when they smell their mom’s milk. These reciprocal interactions release nurturing hormones (like oxytocin), which leads them both back into the behaviors of attraction.
This positive cycle fosters autonomic emotional connection, a physiological state that supports mom and baby’s brain, heart, and gut health, stress resilience, and long-term regulation of their physiology and behavior.
When mothers and babies experience disconnect in their relationship (through separation, stress, or disruption of a sense, such as smell), they can have a harder time entering a state of autonomic emotional connection with each other.
How does losing smell disrupt emotional connection?
The care babies need (being held, rocked, changed, sung to, and fed) ensures lots of sensory input to both baby and mom’s systems. All five senses influence their autonomic emotional connection, but since smell is so inherently emotional, it plays a big role. Smelling a baby’s head gives mom a particularly strong boost of oxytocin and lights up the reward centers in her brain (even people who’ve never had a baby get this reward center activation when they smell a newborn’s head!). If mom can’t smell her baby, she may struggle with getting big doses of those connecting hormones.
Smell is also a huge factor in the reciprocal breastfeeding relationship. Smell helps babies distinguish their mother from other mothers and helps them find their food. In fact, a newborn can find their way to their mother’s breast and latch on their own within hours of birth. And the sensations of the baby crawling up to her breast cause a let down of mom’s milk. But if you wash a mother’s breast immediately after birth, the baby cannot locate it or latch without help. If you wipe one breast with amniotic fluid (which the baby has been smelling for months), the baby is again able to find it and self-attach.
Smell factors into caring interactions we may otherwise have thought of as unremarkable, like sniffing a child’s diaper to see if they need to be changed. Parents may also identify when their child is having digestive trouble by their diaper smelling differently! So smell is a really important part of many facets of the connection equation.
What can you do if you’re experiencing a loss of your sense of smell?
Well, first of all, it may be possible to recondition a lost sense of smell, so it can’t hurt to try!
But even if that’s not possible, you can absolutely build a beautiful emotional connection with your child. The body-level connection reflex gets reinforced through all of our senses. If you don’t have access to one sense, you can focus more on the others—for example, moms who have hearing or vision impairments can of course still have wonderful relationships with their children through a heightened awareness and engagement of the senses they do have access to.
The more senses you can engage at once, the stronger your connection will be (try to get three at a time!).
Here are some suggestions:
- Spend lots of time doing skin-to-skin holding. This is one of the best ways to engage autonomic emotional connection. For parent and baby’s health, there’s no better activity.
- For both you and your baby, skin-to-skin lowers your stress levels and regulates your physiology.
- It can boost oxytocin and has additional benefits for babies, like regulating heart rate, blood sugar, and temperature.
- Keep breastfeeding! This is a wonderful opportunity to remind your bodies of their foundational connection to each other:
- While feeding, you can talk, sing, and coo while calming each other through touch, and when your baby is alert, you can look into each other’s eyes.
- Your breasts also warm to meet your baby’s individual temperature needs—in fact, they will heat differentially for twins! That’s a powerful connection.
- Breastfeeding releases oxytocin in both of you. Breast milk contains oxytocin, too, which gets delivered straight to your baby’s developing gut and tells their body how much to grow.
- Remember that your baby can still smell you! The smell of your milk and skin are very calming for your baby and helps their side of the connection equation immensely.
- When you are separated, you can give your baby a hanky or small cloth you have worn in your bra. Your scent will calm the baby and maintain your connection when you are not together.
- Spend lots of face-to-face time with your baby
- When it is safe to do so, take off your mask so your baby can see your entire face.
- Looking into your baby’s beautiful eyes will build up your feelings of closeness and attraction to each other.
- Mirroring your facial expressions is how babies learn emotional intelligence and connection, and develop their full range of feelings.
- Mothers often emotionally recall the first moment they laid eyes on their baby, and the first time that baby looked into their eyes. Tell this story to your baby.
- Wear your baby
- in a front-facing wrap, sling, or carrier. This lets you and your baby spend all day snuggled in a continuous exchange of positive sensory input.
- Respond to your baby’s needs!
- There is no such thing as spoiling a baby early on. Letting a baby cry does not teach self-regulation; it bathes their brain in stress hormones and slows their development.
- Pick them up, soothe them, and show them your loving face. These interactions bathe their brain in hormones that allow neurons to grow and expand, and connections to form.
- Talk to and listen to your baby
- If losing your sense of smell is hard for you, don’t be afraid to share those feelings with your baby—it’s important for emotional connection.
- We often feel we should “protect” our children from negative emotions and experiences. But when we shut ourselves off from our negative feelings, we also dull our positive feelings.
- Expressing your honest emotions to your baby has positive effects on their health and your relationship. You don’t have to direct negative feelings at your baby, but you can feel them in front of your baby.
- Reach out to your community for support
- Loss of smell may be linked to depression. If you’re experiencing depression, consider seeking social support and professional help. Know that there is hope. You and your baby will connect, and your family and friends can be of huge help right now.
“A mother’s body is finely tuned to answer her baby’s needs, and the baby is finely tuned to elicit the right mechanisms in the mother,” says Martha G. Welch MD, Director of the Nurture Science Program. “Being emotionally connected includes getting disrupted. It’s part of life. But we must practice repairing the disruptions that interfere with emotional connection. It becomes easy to do when you do it regularly.”
Mother-baby emotional connection is foundational in establishing a resilient relationship, and healthy families. It may not be possible for smell to be a part of that connection, but that connection can still be deeply nurtured and fiercely protected.