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Pregnancy | Soothe Babies with Familiar Smells

Soothe Babies with Familiar Smells

Newborns can be comforted by familiar smells after stressful experiences such as painful medical procedures, according to a study in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (2005;26:86–92).

Babies experience and react to pain from their first moments of life. Routine medical procedures that are performed shortly after birth, such as immunizations, blood draws, and circumcision, elicit reactions that indicate they cause babies to experience pain, such as crying, closing eyes, grimacing, and flailing movements. Parents, healthcare workers, and researchers have long attempted to come up with ways to comfort babies during and after such experiences, such as holding and nursing. The effects of various odors have been of interest because the sense of smell is more highly developed at birth than the other senses. Studies have found that maternal odors, such as the smell of mother’s milk and the smell of amniotic fluid, can have a soothing effect on crying infants. Odors from infant formulas and other less familiar sources have not had the same effect. Previous research has suggested that newborns can quickly become familiar with nonmaternal smells that can then be similarly soothing to them.

In the current study, 44 newborn infants underwent a routine heel stick (blood draw) to test for phenylketonuria on the third day after birth. They were randomly assigned to one of four groups: the first group was exposed to the smell of mother’s milk around the time of the heel stick; the second group was exposed to the smell of vanilla around the time of the heel stick, after having scarves scented with vanilla in their beds for one day before the heel stick; the third group was exposed to the smell of vanilla around the time of the heel stick, but had no prior exposure to it; and the fourth group was not exposed to any smells around the time of the heel stick (control group). Gauze pads with 20 drops of mother’s milk or vanilla scent were held close to the noses of the infants in all but the control group from 30 seconds before until 30 seconds after the heel stick. Crying, facial expressions, and head movements were observed during this time to evaluate distress levels.

The infants in the mother’s milk and familiar vanilla groups had a significantly greater decrease in crying and facial expressions of distress in the 30 second period after the heel stick than the infants in the unfamiliar vanilla group and control group. They also had significantly fewer head movements in the 30 seconds after the heel stick. Although signs of distress were not different between the two familiar smell groups during the 30 seconds after the heel stick, head movements were significantly fewer in the mother’s milk group during the heel stick.

These results are consistent with those of previous studies and support the observation that familiar smells have a soothing effect on newborns after stressful situations. They also show that infants can become familiar with nonmaternal smells and experience comfort from them within a short period of time; however, only the smell of the mother’s milk was comforting enough to reduce signs of distress during the painful event in this study. Despite the noted benefits of including familiar smells in the infant’s environment during stressful events, it appears from previous research that holding (skin-to-skin contact) and nursing are better soothing techniques and should be used whenever possible.

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

Copyright © 2005 Healthnotes, Inc. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of the Healthnotes® content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Healthnotes, Inc. Healthnotes Newswire is for educational or informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or provide treatment for any condition. If you have any concerns about your own health, you should always consult with a healthcare professional. Healthnotes, Inc. shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon. HEALTHNOTES and the Healthnotes logo are registered trademarks of Healthnotes, Inc.

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The health information contained in this site is not intended as medical advice and should not be considered a substitute for appropriate medical care. Any products mentioned in studies cited in Healthnotes articles are not necessarily endorsed by Bastyr. As with any product, consult with a natural health practitioner to discuss what may be best for you.


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