What You're Underappreciating About Baby's Senses of Taste and Smell
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What You’re Underappreciating About Baby’s Senses of Taste and Smell

We can use their acute senses of taste and smell to help build these important connections in the brain for new learning to take place.

Published May 27, 2018

by Aimee Ketchum

Pediatric Occupational Therapist
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Babies are born with two important, well-developed senses that parents may not even think about, but around six months, these senses can suddenly take over their lives:

Baby’s Senses of Taste and Smell

We read to our babies, sing, play Mozart, hang mobiles, buy brightly lit toys, and are always concerned with our babies’ vision and hearing. However, how often do we think about taste and smell?

The senses of taste and smell are powerful, very acute at birth, and closely related. Although the two senses are interpreted in different parts of the brain, the neural messages for taste and smell meet in the same part of the brain, called the insula.

Babies are like little sponges taking in new information from the world through all their senses, causing connections in their brains and new learning to occur every day. We can use their acute senses of taste and smell to help build these important brain connections for new learning.

Taste

At just seven to eight weeks gestation, taste buds start emerging. By around 16 weeks, the taste pores will be developed, and baby can taste amniotic fluid. This is possibly the most overlooked of all the senses. Early taste preferences can set a foundation for a lifetime of eating and making healthy food choices. For example, studies show that mothers who eat a large amount of garlic or certain herbs while pregnant or nursing have children who later prefer those flavors.1

Babies are born able to detect only three of the four main tastes: sweet, sour, and bitter.

Studies show that they prefer sweet tastes over anything else.2 For example, babies will suck sugar water out of a bottle but turn away from a bottle with lemon water.

Did you know that babies are unable to detect salt at birth? Instead, babies will drink salt water, the same as they would drink plain water. Scientists believe the taste buds that detect salty flavors develop around five months of age.3

This doesn’t mean very much, as we will not try to add salt to a baby’s formula or breast milk, but it is an interesting fact about taste buds and how they are ever-changing!

Babies have the most taste buds at birth.

Around 10,000 taste buds are all over the tongue, throat, and inside the cheeks. Taste buds deteriorate over time. Most adults have fewer than 10,000 taste buds, with little to no tastebuds left inside the cheeks.4 This tells us that not only does the sense of taste become less sensitive over time. Tastes are constantly changing and evolving. If your baby dislikes peas at eight months, keep trying again, as they may develop a taste for peas as their taste buds change.

How many new parents have bought fresh organic fruits or vegetables, washed, boiled, pureed, cooled, and lovingly attempted to feed them to a new little eater? Only to have them promptly turn up their nose and clench their tiny mouth shut? I know I have on more than one frustrating occasion!

Use this acute sense of taste to build new pathways in the brain by providing your baby with new experiences through different flavors. Even if it is just a small taste of tomato sauce or lemon juice on your finger, you will be helping those pathways to form. Also, be aware of offering different textures to new eaters, providing new experiences and oral motor practice.

Smell

Babies are born with a well-developed, almost primal sense of smell that intensifies after the baby is about a week old.5 One-day-old babies show little preference for their mother’s scent, but after familiarity develops, babies will turn their heads to a piece of their mother’s clothing with her scent on it, signifying recognition of the scent. Babies prefer sweet scents over sour scents and familiar scents over unfamiliar scents. You may notice that your newborn seems to calm down as soon as you pick him up. Your familiar scent most likely soothes him.

We can also use taste and smell to help babies learn cause and effect and some connection to what is going on around them.

For example, if you always use the same soap at bath time, when your baby smells that soap, they will anticipate going into the bathtub, establishing a sense of cause and effect and a routine.

Every day, the average person breathes in around 20,000 times.6 In addition, the human nose can distinguish 1 trillion different odors.7 So give your baby lots of different scents to experience. Hold flowers to her nose, different foods, soaps, lotions, whatever is handy.

The part of the brain responsible for perceiving smells is close to the area that perceives memory and emotions, so familiar scents often evoke powerful emotional responses and memories. For example, I feel happy when I smell cookies baking or the ocean’s salty air. So again, help your baby establish cause and effect, stimulate new memories by exposing them to different scents, and show them how to smell by doing it yourself.

Using all of our babies’ senses, we can help those brain connections form, making them more intelligent and aware of their environment.

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Aimee Ketchum Pediatric Occupational Therapist
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Dr. Aimee Ketchum is an Academic Fieldwork Coordinator and Assistant Professor of early child development at Cedar Crest College Occupational Therapy Doctoral Program. She continues practicing her skills as a… Read more

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