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

parentingUpdated June 18, 2021
Baby's Senses of Taste and Smell

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 to our babies, play Mozart, hang mobiles, buy brightly lit toys, always concerned with our babies’ senses of vision and hearing. However, how often do we think about taste and smell? The senses of taste and smell are powerful, both 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… Read More

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

The senses of taste and smell are powerful, both 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 take place every day. We can use their acute senses of taste and smell to help build these important connections in the brain for new learning to occur.

Taste

At just seven to eight weeks gestation, taste buds start emerging. And 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.

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

Studies show that they prefer sweet tastes over anything else. 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.

This doesn’t really mean very much, as we will not try to add salt to baby’s formula or breast milk, but it certainly 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, in fact, 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. 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 out there have bought fresh organic fruits or vegetables, washed them, boiled them, pureed them, cooled them, 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 lots of 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. One day old babies show little preference for their mother’s scent, but after familiarity develops, babies will turn their head 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 as well as a routine.

Every day the average person breathes in around 20,000 times. In addition, the human nose can distinguish 1 trillion different odors. 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 very close to the area that perceives memory and emotions, which is why familiar scents often evoke powerful emotional responses and memories. For example, I know I just feel happy when I smell cookies baking or the ocean’s salty air. So again, help your baby establish cause and effect, as well as stimulating new memories by exposing them to lots of different scents and show them how to smell by doing it yourself.

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