Hats Off to Your New Baby! The Power of Smell

  
Have you ever wondered why all new babies fashion the exact same hat directly after birth? The theory behind it is that it is to keep the baby warm. But did you know that you, as a mother, have everything you need to keep your baby at the perfect temperature immediately after birth?  And that wonderful newborn baby head smell, that is reduced by the newborn hat, has a specific biological function?

The Power of Smell

Research suggests that certain body odors act as a channel for bonding mechanisms. Pheromones are exchanged through the womb even before the baby is born so it’s natural for mothers and babies to recognize each others smell. When the baby passes through the birth canal there is a sudden rise in oxytocin levels, “the love hormone”, in the mother. The baby follows suite and there is an instinctual exchange between them. The smell of your baby’s head stimulates and cues the olfactory system to initiate the rush of oxytocin. This is not only important for bonding and breastfeeding, but for a healthy, third stage of labor in which the placenta releases from the uterine wall. This is all triggered by smell! Hormones encourage the maternal and infant responses that are fundamental to the survival of the newborn. It is an animalistic characteristic. Maternal status-dependent activity is demonstrated in the thalamus when exposed to the body odor of a newly born infant.

Making sure your baby stays warm

While a hat after birth is intended to keep a baby warm, there is no need to have a piece of fabric between mother and baby. Studies have proven the infant hat does not reduce a fall temperature. The hats are unlikely a value in reducing heat loss immediately after birth; but, in fact, may do the opposite and overheat them. Skin-to-skin contact, with a blanket lightly covering both baby and mama, requires the baby to use fewer calories to stay warm. Moms keep their babies at the perfect temperature when they practice skin-to-skin interaction with their baby.  This is proven to regulate the baby’s temperature, breathing patterns, blood sugar levels, and heart rate. Mothers naturally modulate the warmth of their breasts to keep their infants at the optimal temperature where babies sleep best. Maternal breast temperature responds to the baby’s temperature and can rise quickly and then fall as the baby is warmed. As the baby starts to cool, the breasts will heat up again. For premature infants, or infants with low muscle tones or disabilities, this skin-to-skin contact is essential and in the NICU is referred to as kangaroo care.

Anatomically, the olfactory system is closely connected to the limbic systems of the brain. The limbic system includes structures such as long-term memory, emotions, autonomic nervous system, hormones that regulate blood pressure, heart rate, and attention. It is due to the fact that olfactory system is so closely connected to the limbic system that the baby’s smell has such profound physiological and psychological effects.  So hats off everyone!

 

*Please note- I am not suggesting you go against any medical advice from your care provider in your particular situation.

References

Epstein Randi, MD. Scent-sational smells. Debunking pheromones without losing faith in the powers of smell. Psychology today

E C Coles, H B Valman British Medical Journal. 1979 September 22; 2(6192): 734-735

Ludington-Hoe, S.M. and Golant, S.K. (1993). Kangaroo Care: The Best You Can Do for Your Premature Infant. New York: Bantam Books

Johan N. Lundstrom, Annegret Mathe, Benoist Schaal, Johannes Frasnelli, Katharina Nitzsche, Johannes Gerber, and Thomas Hummel. Maternal status regulates cortical responses to the body odor of newborns. Front. Psychol., 05 September 2013. Vol 4. Article 597

Richardson, Holly. Kangaroo Care: Why Does It Work? Midwifery Today Issue 44, Winter 1997.

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