I’ve got this theory. I’m not going to suggest that I’m the first to come up with this. It’s only “new” in the sense that it’s “new” to me. I’d love to see it tested with some research on mothers and infants.
A few weeks ago I got thinking about the profoundly intense bond I developed with my son following my home birth. I had never experienced anything like it. Sure, I developed a deep love for my daughters, but it took much longer and came far less naturally. I have come up with many possible explanations for the intensity of the bond with my son…
* No Pitocin to interfere
* More intense oxytocin rush being in a comfortable, private setting
* Immediate and prolonged skin-to-skin contact
* First feeding within 15 minutes of birth (I can’t remember exactly, but it was the first thing we did after holding him and delivering the placenta.)
* No hospital staff coming in and out of our room at all hours
As I was thinking, I realized another factor I hadn’t thought of before. My baby boy spent his first 20-ish hours of life still smelling of birth (it’s a sweet smell) with amniotic-fluid-and-vernix “gel” in his hair, and even bits of blood here and there (I should clarify that he was wiped with dry towels following his birth, so he wasn’t slimy). Sounds gross, but we didn’t really want to bathe him in the wee hours of the morning and didn’t get around to it until the next evening. Even then, we didn’t use any soap. Just rinsed his hair with water (not all the waxy vernix came out) and did a quick sponge bath. So I’d wager he still “smelled of birth” until the first shampoo eight days later. For over a week, my nose and brain were bathed in those primal smells.
Research indicates that babies are highly attuned to their mothers’ smells. They are imprinted on the smell of amniotic fluid, and the areola of the breast carries a very similar smell. In fact, an infant who is placed between his/her mother’s naked breasts immediately following birth (and left there), can find the nipple and latch on without any adult assistance. Just through his highly developed sense of smell and instincts! (If you’ve never watched this amazing process, you simply must. I found this YouTube video with the “breast crawl” in action. I am hoping to experience it with my next baby!) It has also been shown that infants are calmed and cry less when exposed to the smell of amniotic fluid.
What about mothers? When a mother gives birth (particularly without intervention), she experiences the highest oxytocin rush of her lifetime. When oxytocin is released, other processes are working behind-the-scenes as well. Oxytocin is tied to memory and smell. It is the “bonding” hormone in large part because humans become “bonded” to those with whom they experience surges of oxytocin. And the brain/body remembers those individuals largely through the olfactory triggers that are present when the oxytocin-surge-bonding takes place.
It is nearly standard practice to clean infants within a few hours of birth. And it is almost a given that Johnson’s baby shampoo will eliminate all but a trace of that amniotic-fluid-and-vernix coating babies come smothered in. If the smells of the womb and birth have a profound influence upon infants, why not mothers? Wouldn’t it make sense that biology/God/Mother Nature would also instill within her instinctual responses to those primal smells? In fact, an olfactory-oxytocin-maternal-instinct connection has been demonstrated with rats.
I’m now completely convinced that smell played a huge part in the rapid and intense bonding and maternal drive I experienced with my baby boy. Any future babies I have will spend at least as long smelling of birth. I don’t care how gross anyone thinks it is. Just try taking in a long breath of a freshly-born baby’s head and tell me it doesn’t smell good to your core. I’m in no hurry to wash it away. No hurry at all.
Yippee! Scientists are studying this phenomenon!
“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” (Source).
Some related links:
New baby smell creates ‘very strong’ bond in mom’s brain, study finds
Tie between oxytocin and smell
Rub It In: Making the Case for the Benefits of Vernix Caseosa
Bonding Matters: The Chemistry of Attachment
Amniotic fluid smell
Optimal position for breastfeeding (lying down with baby on chest)