On the nose - The smells of postpartum

This article was first published elsewhere in May 2023.

Have you ever walked into a home and been smacked in the face by the smell of milky baby? I have. Over and again at friends’ and clients’ houses, I have opened the door to their early postpartum world and been whacked fair in the nostrils by the sweet smell of baby love. And yet, I can not smell it in my own.

We know smell is such an important sense for our babies. Baby’s first exposure to smell is that of their amniotic fluid. By day 3 of life a breastfed baby can tell it’s own mother’s milk from that made by other parents by smell alone1, and as they grow, children prefer clothes that have been worn around their own mother’s armpits to clothes worn by other mums.2

Smell is important for us as parents too. Studies show mothers and birth parents prefer the smell of our own babies and children over others, from their first moments earth side right through the sweat pit that is puberty.3 The smell of baby’s head kickstarts the process of rewiring fathers’ and non-birth parents’ brains towards caregiving4 (yet another reason to get those baby hats off and get your babe skin-to-skin with someone who loves them ASAP). One interesting study from 2021 showed a chemical called hexadecanal emitted from the skin on babies’ heads encourages dads to mellow out around their youngsters (which may enhance caregiving and bonding), while increasing protective aggression (i.e. to use against predators and other threats) among women.5

Fascinating, huh?

Wrapping up the science lesson, let’s get back to me and my (admittedly minor) odourless baby conundrum. At this point I would like to clarify my olfactory function has traditionally been fine. I had covid twice (twice! The bastard!) during my pregnancy (and potentially once in postpartum too) but didn’t notice a permanent loss of smellability. A few colds haven’t helped either, but that’s no excuse when my nose is clear of dreaded daycare bugs. Certainly I can still smell myself, and despite what my husband states to the contrary, I can safely say the hormonal loop of increased sweat and pungency to help baby find their food is firing so strongly no soapy shower can wash my self-perceived pong away.

Yet the milky baby smell that I want to invade my nose parts and light the reward centres of my brain on fire with a tingly rush of pheromone-induced love eludes me. Even with my body curled around her in bed and my nose burrowed into her fine hair, I can’t locate her scent. A nothing issue in the scheme of postpartum worries, I still find this disconcerting.

I query whether it’s like washing detergent or shampoo, where you get so used to the scent of your own Lemon Myrtle you can’t smell it unless it’s presented next to someone else’s Tropical Burst. The scientist in me reasons I could test this theory by sniffing other babies and then my own in a comparative experiment, but my internal ethics committee has determined unsolicited baby-sniffing probably isn’t the done thing these days.

So what to do?

I don’t have a plan, but I do have other questions, the main one being why I want conscious awareness of that smell in the first place. Unlike the smell I seek, this answer is easy to find and, unsurprisingly given the joy and grief inducing nature of child-raising, emotionally sappy.

This time, like all brief patches of babyhood and therefore motherhood, is ending already, before it even feels like it’s properly begun. She’s starting solids - all slivers of banana and avocado and pumpkin within her reach are ripe for the shakily-excited taking. The days of milk-only spit ups and barely offensive baby poos are winding down.

I want to imprint this love bubble into my brain in a way that only smell, the sense with such strong connection to our brains’ memory centres, can. I want an anchor into how this time feels, to remember how it is and was to snuggle my little chubby-legged koala girl before cells other than the ones from my body sustained her life.

I want to use scent to bank what it’s like when the world spins so quickly and slowly simultaneously and all my feelings happen side by side feeding my baby in the semi-darkness at 4am, wanting to sleep but wanting to watch her, so when I catch a whiff of it again I will remember all of whatever this is.

I want it to not end, and yet, it will. In a way, it already has. And now what? I don’t know.

All going well my koala will grow long and leggy and sassy like her sister. I will dance with her on my hip in the kitchen and she will tell me about her nonsensical dreams and change her mind three hundred times a day. She will be herself, not just an extension of myself, and be taller than me by age 10, maybe 11 if I’m lucky. I hope, when the only part of her that fits on my lap is her head, she still lets me stroke her velvet hair. When I do, I will breathe her in, whether I can smell her or not, because she’s my Baby, and though she always will be, Future Me misses the tiny version of her already.




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