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

Baby's Senses of Taste and Smell

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

Babies are born with two very 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 brain 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 take place.


At just seven to eight weeks gestation, taste buds start emerging and babies can taste amniotic fluid. 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. 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. Babies will suck sugar water out of a bottle, but turn away from a bottle with lemon water.

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

This doesn’t really mean very much, as we are not going to 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

Over 40,000 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, also providing new experiences as well as oral motor practice.

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Babies are born with a very well-developed, almost primal sense of smell that actually 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. He is most likely soothed by your familiar scent.

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 bath tub, establishing a sense of cause and effect as well as a routine.

Every day the average person breathes in over 23,000 times, bringing 10,000 different scents toward the smell receptors in the nose. 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. I know I just feel happy when I smell cookies baking or the salty air of the ocean. 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.

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

About the Author /

Dr. Aimee Ketchum is a pediatric occupational therapist and has been working in pediatrics for 20 years. Ketchum works in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UPMC Pinnacle Hospital and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her husband and two daughters. Ketchum is also the owner/operator of Aimee’s Babies LLC, a child development company.

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