Why Does Everyone Want to Smell My Baby?

An illustration of a person smelling a baby in a stroller

Verywell / Zoe Hansen

Ask any new parent and they’ve likely had a similar experience: They bring their newborn to meet some relatives or friends and during introductions, they catch Aunt Sue or best friend Diane discreetly smelling their baby’s head. Or they hand the baby over to grandma for the first time and she closes her eyes and takes a long, savoring whiff.

Why is this so common? Grandma and Aunt Sue and Diane will tell you that they just can’t get enough of that “new baby smell.” It turns out that new baby smell isn’t just an old wives’ tale—it’s a real thing that’s been studied in scientific research. Here’s everything you need (or would want) to know about that heady new baby smell.

Why Do I Love My Baby's Smell?

Doctors and researchers haven’t managed to pinpoint exactly where the new baby smell comes from, though many suspect it has something to do with the vernix, which is the thick, greasy, protective coating that forms on a baby’s skin in utero. However, they are starting to hypothesize about why exactly parents—and your neighbors two doors down—are so attracted to your newborn’s smell.

“There are some hypotheses that our brains are hardwired to be attracted to this odor in order
to help us getting attached to the newborn,” says Johannes Frasnelli, MD, associate professor in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivieres, who has studied the effects of new baby smell. “In fact, evolution has put in place a number of mechanisms that help the attachment between parents and newborns (and children) to get strong from the beginning, and the body odor may be one of these mechanisms.”

In Dr. Frasnelli’s study, the researchers tracked the brain activity of 30 women, half new moms and half not, while they smelled pajamas worn by 2-day-old infants. They found that all the women experienced a surge in dopamine and activation in other reward-related areas of the brain. It's a chemical reaction similar to what happens when you eat sugar. Since this makes them feel so good, it would encourage parents to stay close to the baby and care for it so they can continue to feel the “high.”

While all the women in the study reacted to the new baby smell, the reaction was stronger in those that were already parents. “Mothers recognize the odor of their own children,” Dr. Frasnelli adds. “And new mothers’ brains react differently to the new baby odor (even if it is not their own child).” So don’t be surprised if your 20-something, childless cousin doesn’t swoon over your baby’s smell as much as your older sister who is a mom of three—it doesn’t make the smell any less sweet.

People are obsessed with new baby smell and the positive emotional reaction it provides! For proof, look no further than these candles and perfumes trying to recreate it.

How Long Does the New Baby Smell Last?

If the new baby smell comes from the vernix, it stands to reason that the smell fades as the vernix
is resorbed within the first few weeks to months of the baby’s life. “The distinctive new baby smell fades with time as babies’ skin comes into contact with the outside world, is washed, and as they grow older,” explains Rebekah Diamond, MD, a pediatric hospitalist in New York City, assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University, and author of Parent Like a Pediatrician.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that babies stop smelling “good” to their parents and other
adults. “Parents often describe the body odors of their prepubescent children as delicious, and for older children, the vernix does not play a role anymore,” Dr. Frasnelli says. “That is probably due to the secretion of other glands, especially in the area of their head.”

In case this sounds like an eyebrow-raiser—yes, the “delicious” scent does start to go away once children become teenagers and begin producing more, slightly less pleasant body odors.

Why Doesn't My Baby Have The Newborn Smell?

Since the direct cause of new baby smell is still unknown, Dr. Frasnelli says it’s unclear whether
some babies may be born without it. “Pre-term babies have much less vernix, accordingly their odor may be less,” he notes. But this hypothesis aside, there’s really no reason why your newborn wouldn’t have that intoxicating new baby smell.

If you think your baby doesn’t or didn’t have it, consider how many newborns you smelled prior to
holding your little one for the first time. Yours likely had the dreamy smell, you just didn’t know it or didn’t register it as such.

What Causes My Baby To Smell Bad?

As delicious as new baby smell is, your baby is going to produce some other smells that are slightly less pleasant. “This is most often just due to poop and gas,” says Dr. Diamond. Keep in mind that if you are exclusively breastfeeding, your baby’s poop will have a very mild odor, while the odor will be stronger if they are drinking formula instead or in addition to breastmilk.

“Very rare, strong smells can happen with certain rare conditions so you can always chat with your
pediatrician with any concerns,” Dr. Diamond adds. One such condition is maple syrup urine disease, which gets its name from the fact that (as you may have guessed) the urine of affected infants smells distinctly like maple syrup. It’s uncommon, but can be serious if left untreated.

“For the most part,” says Dr. Diamond, “the occasional unpleasant smell is just a dirty diaper and no reason to worry.” 

A Word From Verywell

New baby smell isn’t an old wives’ tale—it’s a real thing that’s been scientifically studied. While researchers don’t know exactly where it comes from, they suspect it exists to strengthen the relationship between parent and baby from the moment the baby is born. Indeed, studies show that the chemical brain reaction that happens when smelling new baby smell is akin to what happens in the brain when you eat sugar. Unfortunately, new baby smell only lasts for a few weeks to months—but luckily, all babies are born with it. If your newborn does not smell good, it’s likely just a particularly smelly poop or gas. But if you are concerned at all about how your newborn smells, contact their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lundström JN, Mathe A, Schaal B, et al. Maternal status regulates cortical responses to the body odor of newbornsFront Psychol. 2013;4.

  2. Croy I, Frackowiak T, Hummel T, Sorokowska A. Babies smell wonderful to their parents, teenagers do not: an exploratory questionnaire study on children’s age and personal odor ratings in a polish sample. Chem Percept. 2017;10(3):81-87.

  3. National Library of Medicine. Maple syrup urine disease.

By Alyssa Sybertz
Alyssa has been writing about health and wellness since 2013. Her work has appeared in print in publications like FIRST for Women, Woman's World, and Closer Weekly and online at places like TheHealthy.com, Allrecipes.com, and OnePeloton.com. She is the author of The OMAD Diet and has served as editor-in-chief for two magazines about intermittent fasting.