Baby’s Sense of Smell Development – Timelines and What to Expect

5 min read

Written by Aparna Hari

Aparna Hari

Baby’s Sense of Smell Development

We are all born with a nose and the sense of smell is very important to carry on with regular life. When does this sense organ start developing? Do newborn babies have a sense of smell? Or do they develop it as they get older, like other skills? You will be surprised to know that a baby’s sense of smell development starts in the mother’s womb and is fully functional at birth.

This sense of smell is vital for the survival and proper development of babies. Smell and taste and inter-related and babies accept feed only when they like and recognize the smell. As babies cross the 6th-month mark, this relationship between smell and taste will influence their food habits too. Let us learn more about the baby’s sense of smell and how and when it develops.

In This Article

Do Newborn Babies Have a Sense of Smell?

Yes, babies are born with a very keen sense of smell. They quickly learn the smell of their mother, primary caregiver, breastmilk, their room, and many others. Apart from the lighting and temperature, the smell of a room also triggers a baby. They know they are in a new place when it smells different.

They say a baby can smell breastmilk from a distance. This is why you can see a baby cry the minute the mother walks in. She need not touch or speak but the baby will know the mother is nearby.

Baby’s Sense of Smell Development After Birth – Milestones

According to studies, the brain’s olfactory centre forms in the fetal stage itself. It develops as the baby develops and a baby is born with a very good sense of smell. This is why a newborn who is unable to see beyond a few meters or focus on a person’s face, will know if their mother or someone else is holding or carrying them.

Similarly, a baby is able to identify who is carrying them even with their eyes closed. So how does this sense of smell develop in a baby? Does it change month after month as it does with other skills? Let’s find out!

Birth to First Few Weeks (0 to 2 Weeks)

  • A newborn can smell and understand the scent of their mother and mother’s milk.
  • Some babies can even differentiate between their mother’s milk and another woman’s milk, or formula. This is why some babies reject other milk even before tasting it.
  • They know their primary caregivers’ smells. If someone new were to carry them, they can resist and cry to show disapproval. The minute they are handed back to their mother and they get her smell, they feel comforted and calm down.

First to Three Months (1 to 3 Months)

  • Babies start building their memory based on the experience they have with smells – parents and cuddling, strange smells can indicate strangers, and the absence of a mother’s smell can indicate she is not close by.
  • When they are 3 months old, their limbs are stronger, and they also have better control over their neck. So, if they encounter a smell they don’t like, they can kick, cry, and turn away to show disapproval or fear.

Four to Six Months (4 to 6 Months)

  • At this stage, you can introduce your baby to new food items. They prefer some foods over others, mainly by the smell. The texture comes next.
  • If your baby does not like the smell of a food item, they can refuse to eat it. Some strong-smelling foods can make them gag too.
  • The sense of smell plays an important role in their choice of foods.

[Read : Baby And Solid Foods: When And How to Introduce]

Seven to Nine Months (7 to 9 Months)

  • Babies can move at this stage. They may move towards toys or food items based on the smell, in addition to the bright colours and textures.
  • They will pick foods off the plate and eat or spit depending on the smell and taste.

Ten to Twelve Months (10 to 12 Months)

  • Now, if you try to trick them into eating something, it may not be so easy anymore. Even if you try to give them different milk in the same bottle, they can differentiate even before tasting it. That is how sharp their sense of smell is at this stage.
  • By this stage, they are able to identify strangers and family members with their smell. You can even try making a new person wear the baby’s mother’s or father’s clothes. You can see the obvious confusion on the baby’s face.
  • They learn to recognize their parents’ perfume and other smells that help them realize their presence in the room, even before seeing them. At this stage, if you need to leave your baby for some time or overnight, you can give them your blanket or clothing for the comfort of smell.

Top 4 Factors Affecting Baby’s Sense of Smell Development

Factors Affecting Baby's Sense of Smell

Just like with everything else, external and internal factors can affect the baby’s sense of smell. Some babies can smell better than other babies while other babies may not be able to smell at all.

Some of the factors that can affect a baby’s sense of smell are:

1. Respiratory Infections

A common cold or a stuffed nose can affect the baby’s sense of smell, just like it can with us adults. They may seem very irritated and even the mother may not succeed in pacifying them as the baby might take time to pick the mother’s scent.

2. Additional Medical Issues

Hyposmia is when one cannot smell much and Anosmia is when one cannot smell at all. If a baby is born with either of these issues, it can deeply affect their sense of smell. You may take time to recognize this if the doctors miss it.

3. Premature Birth

Premature babies take time to develop in every way. Though the olfactory senses develop in the womb at week 10 itself, a preterm baby may not pick scents as well as a full-term baby. They may require a little more time to reach that level.

4. Strong Smells

When a smell is too strong, it can be too much for a baby to process, they may start crying to show their discomfort. It can hinder their ability to pick on a familiar scent.

For example, if the mother wears a new and strong perfume before stepping out, and comes to the baby to give a kiss, it can irritate the baby’s senses. The strong perfume smell will prevent the baby from realizing the mother’s familiar scent.

The nose is one of the sense organs and the sense of smell is very crucial in day-to-day life. There are many factors that can affect this sense. If your baby is unable to smell well, you need to identify the reasons, help your child get better, and support them until they can smell well.

[Read : Baby Crying – Causes And Tips to Calm Your Baby]


1. How Do I Introduce My Baby to Smells?

You can give them multiple things to hold, smell and understand including perfumed books, food items, and toys. You need to take it slow and not overload their sense of smell. Give them time to get used to a smell.

2. How Far Can a Baby Smell Their Mother?

Babies can recognize the scent of their mother as early as day 3 of their lives. As the bond gets stronger, the babies learn to recognize this scent from a distance too (varies from baby to baby). During weaning, the mothers are advised to stay out of the room or sometimes stay even further away, when it is time for bed or a feed.

3. Can Babies Remember Smells?

Yes, they can. The sense of smell develops memory too. Babies remember what something or someone smells like and associate it with recognizing or remembering experiences in the future.

Read Also: Baby Hearing Development After Birth – Timelines And What to Expect

Aparna Hari,MBA in Marketing,P.G. Diploma in Human Resource Management from IGNOU Bachelor of Sciences (Home Science) from Nagarjuna University

Her experience in impactful writing combined with her background in Home Sciences makes Aparna the perfect candidate for content writing in the pregnancy and parenting niche.Read more.

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