Babies smell irresitable…and it’s no coincidence! Science shows our brains are wired to react to a baby’s smell, AND baby cuddles benefit parents too!
It’s 4am and you hear it.
A low, rising cry from the baby’s room.
The baby is awake…and pretty soon the whole house is going to know it!
You tiptoe across the dark hallway, groggy from sleep, wishing you were still in bed.
But as soon as you pick up that little one and get a whiff of their sweet baby smell, all is right in the world.
It doesn’t matter how tired I am (and believe me, with a teething 1-year-old, I’m realllllly tired these days) — as soon as my baby is in my arms, I feel my heart rate instantly lower.
Especially in those quiet, late-night moments, I always make a point to breathe deeply and take in that baby smell. (Don’t laugh – you do it too!) There’s just something about that sweet baby smell that is almost addictive!
Turns out, that’s not our imagination!
How Baby Cuddles Benefit Parents Too
It’s well-established that hugging and cuddling benefits babies and their development, but it turns out that those baby snuggles have a profound effect on parents and caregivers too!
Not only that, but we humans are genetically wired to be drawn to infants by their smell. (More on that in a minute!)
Four Ways Holding a Baby Benefits Parents & Caregivers:
- Reduces Stress — Parents who regularly engage in skin-to-skin contact with their baby report lower levels of depression and lower stress levels overall.1 That’s because holding a baby close is thought to release oxytocin, nicknamed the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone.”2
- Provides Healthy Touch — Touch is a powerful tool for humans of ALL ages, but most adults don’t get enough physical human contact. That’s primarily because we live in what DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein calls “a touch-phobic society,” with the amount of physical contact we experience declining drastically after childhood. The good news is that “a lot of those same beneficial physiological consequences [of touch] happen to […] the person doing the touching.”3 Snuggling a baby is a way to experience the benefits of human contact that many adults wouldn’t otherwise receive.
- Increases Bonding — Touch is an “essential channel of communication with caregivers for a child,” explains San Diego State University School of Communication emeritus professor Peter Andersen.3 Holding a baby not only provides a sense of closeness on both sides, but it also is a way that infants receive non-verbal communication from their caregivers.
- You Might Live Longer — This one is specifically for the grandparents! A well-known study found evidence that being an involved grandparent may lead to a longer life. Furthermore, “there is a lot of research that points to the health benefits of being connected to others in positive relationships.”4
While there is a lot of science to show that it’s beneficial to our well-being to snuggle babies, for many it doesn’t require any convincing at all!
In fact, whenever we have a family gathering, all of the grandparents fight over who gets to hold the baby. Well, not fight, but they definitely all want their turn!
My mom loves to tell the story of how when I was a baby and we went to visit my grandparents, they’d rush to the car to see who could get to me first.
What is it about babies that literally draws us to them? Is it really that sweet baby smell?
Why Babies Smell Good (and We Love it So Much)
When you feel drawn to a baby, or an urge to sniff them, it’s more than just simple preference, it’s thousands and thousands of years of genetics!
A 2013 study found that much like animals, our brains are hard-wired to positively respond to the smell of a baby. This is likely a survival mechanism to make sure that adults take care of vulnerable infants.
The 2013 study brought together a group of 30 women – half of them were mothers and half of them were not. All of the women were exposed to the smell extracted from baby pajamas and underwent MRI brain scans while doing so.
The team of international researchers explains found that all of the women experienced similar results, with the “cerebral reward learning networks [being] activated by the detection of an infant’s body odor.”5
In regular-people-speak: smelling babies releases feel-good chemicals in our brains.
The study focused on women, though it’s possible that baby smell has a similar effect on men.
Now you know, you’re not imagining that feeling of just wanting to hold a baby close, and take a deep whiff! So go ahead and do it, you’ll both benefit tremendously!
More of our most popular posts about babies:
- Harmon, Katherine. “How Important is Physical Contact with Your Infant?” Scientific American, 6 May 2010, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/infant-touch/.
- Pappas, Stephanie. “Oxytocin: Facts About the ‘Cuddle Hormone.” LiveScience, 4 June 2015, https://www.livescience.com/42198-what-is-oxytocin.html
- Chillot, Rick. “The Power of Touch.” Psychology Today, 11 March 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201303/the-power-touch.
- Garska, Sara. “BLOG: Can Being a Grandparent Help You Live Longer?” My Think Big Life, 21 April 2019, https://mythinkbiglife.com/can-being-a-grandparent-help-you-live-longer/.
- Lundström, J. N., Mathe, A., Schaal, B., Frasnelli, J., Nitzsche, K., Gerber, J., & Hummel, T. (2013). “Maternal status regulates cortical responses to the body odor of newborns.” Frontiers in psychology, 4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3763193/