Why does the top of a newborn baby’s head smell so good? Can you train your baby to have healthy eating habits while still in the womb? And why do babies insist on mastering 'Dada' before 'Mama'?
These were some of the questions that intrigued science journalist Linda Geddes when she became pregnant for the first time.
She set out on a quest for definitive answers, which developed into an 18-month investigation into the science of pregnancy, birth and newborn babies. The result was her book Bumpology, a compendium of all things baby and bump-related...
Bumpology: All your pregnancy questions answered - and yes, that includes why newborns smell nice!
WHY DO NEWBORN BABIES SMELL SO GOOD?
There’s something intoxicating about the milky smell of a newborn. Many mothers admit to spending hours inhaling their baby’s odour.
And for good reason — several studies have shown that women can pick out the scent of their baby from other newborns just a few days after giving birth.
Parents may also be able to detect a similarity between their baby’s smell and that of other close family members.
We don’t know precisely where these olfactory signals come from, but scientists think it may be the baby’s sebaceous glands — the tiny oil producers which tend to be particularly active in newborn babies, especially on the head and face.
Body odour is influenced by what we eat, so breast-feeding may also contribute to that delicious new-baby smell.
CAN YOUR UNBORN BABY TASTE YOUR SPICY TAKEAWAY?
Many women believe eating curry in late pregnancy will bring on labour. The taste buds on a baby’s tongue begin to develop 13 to 15 weeks into pregnancy, enabling him or her to detect simple tastes such as sweet, sour and salty in the womb.
Smells and flavours from a mother’s food get into the amniotic fluid surrounding the baby during the third trimester, and as a foetus breathes and swallows around a litre of this a day, which then passes over smell and taste receptors in the nose and mouth, unborn babies do get a taste of what their mum is eating.
Spicy: Can unborn babies really taste strong flavours like these? According to Geddes, they certainly can
CAN YOU TRAIN YOUR UNBORN BABY TO HAVE HEALTHY EATING HABITS IN LATER LIFE?
It seems that the memory of tastes experienced in the womb influences the foods babies like in later life.
Studies have shown that if Mum drinks a glass of carrot juice four times a week in the last trimester (or the first two months of breastfeeding) her baby will find cereal prepared with carrot juice appealing once weaned.
Babies whose mothers eat a lot of fruit during pregnancy are also more likely to enjoy fruit during weaning.
Trying to eat as many different flavours as possible should, therefore, expose your unborn or breastfeeding baby to different tastes and, in theory make them less prone to fussy eating.
CAN A BABY DETECT ITS MOTHER'S MOOD IN THE WOMB?
How a mother feels during pregnancy can certainly affect her unborn baby’s movements.
In a study at Japan’s Nagasaki University, ten women in their last trimester were shown an uplifting clip from the film The Sound Of Music — in which Julie Andrews skips gaily through alpine meadows — while their baby’s movements were monitored by ultrasound.
The women also watched a tear‑jerking clip from boxing film The Champ. They wore earphones, so the baby couldn’t hear the soundtrack.
When the women watched the 'happy' film, their babies seemed stimulated and waved their arms. But during the sad film their movements decreased.
Although the study included only a small number of women, it does at least hint that a baby can detect its mother’s mood.
It’s thought this might occur because hormones, such as adrenaline, are released during times of stress or sadness and can redirect blood flow away from the uterus, which the baby picks up on.
Feelgood factor: Happy films such as The Sound of Music encourage babies to move around more
Blue for babies: All babies have them to start with but eye colour changes at 10 months
WHY DO NEWBORNS HAVE BLUE EYES?
Eye colour is inherited, determined by the amount of a pigment called melanin that we produce. People who don’t produce much melanin have blue or grey eyes, while those who produce lots have brown eyes.
At birth, however, very little melanin is produced — regardless of genes. This is why most babies’ eyes appear blue or blue-grey. But as babies’ eyes are exposed to the light, the body’s production of melanin is ramped up.
If a baby is genetically programmed to produce lots of melanin, their eye colour will begin to change as the months go by. A baby’s eye colour will usually settle down around the age of six months and is unlikely to change much after this.
ARE SUMMER-BORN BABIES DIFFERENT FROM WINTER BABIES?
If a baby is born in the UK between September and December, they are statistically twice as likely to become a professional football player as a baby born in the summer months.
Unfortunately they are also slightly more likely to suffer from panic attacks and, if male, to become an alcoholic in adulthood.
Meanwhile, if you’re ambitious for your child to become a doctor, you might aim for an April-June birthday.
The effect of our birth month on our health is small, but significant enough that it can’t be dismissed. For example, babies born in the northern hemisphere in February, March and April are 5-10 per cent more likely to develop schizophrenia (one of the best-studied season-linked disorders).
Different factors are likely to be at work here. Some studies have suggested that the increased risk of schizophrenia among babies born in the springtime is the result of their mother being exposed to viruses such as influenza during a critical period of pregnancy.
More recently, scientists have proposed that vitamin D deficiency caused by low levels of sunlight during an autumn/winter pregnancy may be to blame, or that varying levels of brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine at different times of the year may play a role.
Looks matter: Babies fixate on faces that are attractive: Angelina Jolie and David Gandy are sure to be popular
DO BABIES LIKE SOME PEOPLE BETTER THAN OTHERS?
Some people love babies, others can’t stand them — and little ones feel the same about us.
Given a choice between photographs of two faces — one that had been rated as attractive by a group of adults and one rated unattractive — a newborn baby will choose to fixate on the more appealing face.
But babies don’t just judge books by their covers. Newborns get upset if people’s facial expressions suggest they’re not responding to them.
Experiments with babies as young as three hours old have shown that if their mother pulls a blank, expressionless face, the baby responds by decreasing their eye contact and showing signs of distress.
This suggests that babies are born with certain expectations regarding the rules of communication — much like the rest of us.
WHY DO BABIES SAY 'DADA' BEFORE 'MAMA'?
Learning to speak requires the coordination of more than 70 different muscles and body parts, so it’s not until around seven or eight months of age that babies start to babble.
Barbara L. Davis, of the University of Texas, travels the world trying to capture these first utterances and make sense of them using a tiny microphone attached to a bib.
From China to Holland, Ecuador to the UK and beyond, she says children are extremely alike during this babbling period.
Sounds such as 'b', 'd', 'm' and 'g' combined with 'ah' seem to be easiest to make, so that’s where babies start.
Although many parents assume that 'Mama' and 'Dada' are among babies’ first words because these are the people who are important to them, baby babble doesn’t start taking on meaning until around ten months.
Many babies do tend to say 'da' before 'ma', though, because early speech sounds tend to be produced by moving the lips, jaw and soft palate simultaneously.
This is how we make 'ba' and 'da' sounds. 'Ma' requires us to move the lips and jaw but relax the soft palate — a more complex operation.
Simple sounds: Babies say 'Dada' first because its easier to pronounce than the more complex 'Mama'
WHY DO WE SPEAK TO BABIES IN A SILLY VOICE?
We’ve all caught ourselves talking in a sing-song voice to babies, but does sounding silly really serve any purpose?
The fact is, parents across the world show a common pattern when talking to babies. They raise the pitch of their voice, speak more slowly, elongate the vowels, repeat themselves and exaggerate changes in intonation. And there seems to be a good reason why.
Recent research at Brown University in the U.S. showed that elongating vowel sounds when talking to toddlers enhanced their ability to recognise words.
The exaggerated way we interact with babies seems to be important, too, for capturing their attention.
Bumpology by Linda Geddes is published by Bantam, priced £14.99. To order your copy for the special price of £11.99 (incl. P&P) call 0844 472 4157.
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