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April 25, 2018  |  Login
Aromas in the Womb: Good and Bad
By Dr. Alan Greene

Inhale and enjoy the warm aroma of fresh-baked bread, the spicy fragrance of a cinnamon stick, or the fresh scent of morning dew. These scents, like all aromas, are composed of the kinds of molecules that can and will go through the placenta and into the womb. These wonderful smells give your baby her first connection with your world.

Enriching Aromas

The sense of smell is the first of the five senses that babies in the womb develop.1 Molecules that a woman can taste or smell tend to pass through the placenta, where they can also be de­tected by the amazingly sensitive olfactory cells of the baby.2 During the months of gestation, your baby has become quite familiar with the aromas you are experiencing. The unborn baby’s ability to smell the molecules in her own amniotic fluid will enable her to navigate to her mother’s breasts in those first crucial moments after birth. This same experience will help her prefer and distinguish by smell alone her own mother’s breast milk as opposed to that of other women. I suspect that this innate ability helps babies recognize, become familiar with, and prefer their own home, their own parents, and their cultural and ethnic foods. They seem to be drawn instinctively to those pleasant smells to which they have become accustomed. In the best sense, these familiar aromas remind them of their experience in the womb. Surrounding your unborn baby with the scents of good nourishing foods may be an important way to begin to develop fa­miliarity, acceptance, and longing for the kinds of foods that will sustain her in a healthy way for the rest of her life.

Harmful Fumes

Molecules of volatile chemicals from fumes and other harmful aromas, unfortunately, also pass through the umbilical cord into the placenta. Fortunately, many common sources of these odors are easily removed from your home.

The following are sources of harmful smells that you can reduce or eliminate:

  • Glues
  • Paints

  • Furniture wax

  • Household cleaners

  • New carpets

  • Dry-cleaned clothing

  • Gasoline

  • Gas from barbecues, fireplaces, and appliances

  • Pesticides

  • Incinerators

  • Smog

  • Cigarette smoke

  • Flame retardants and stain protectors on some carpets, furniture, mattresses, and plastics

Cigarette Smoke

As we’ve already seen, certain smells and fumes are not beneficial to the baby in your womb. One of the earliest fetal observations that hinted at the likelihood that babies in utero could “smell” their outer environment oc­curred when mothers were exposed to cigarette smoke. While watching babies on ultrasound, observers noticed that there was an immediate, ob­vious effect on fetal blood flow. Yes, even in the womb, babies don’t like cigarette smoke.3
If you smoke, STOP. If other people in the home smoke, get them to stop. If you have a visitor who wants to light up, ask them to step outside. The nicotine and carbon monoxide found in cigarette smoke (whether inhaled directly or at second hand) are harmful to you and your baby and are known to cause complications in the pregnancy and serious health problems in a newborn. And you can see the effects in school-aged kids. Prenatal exposure to cigarette smoke appears, by itself, to account for more than a quarter million additional cases of attention deficit hyperactivity dis­order (ADHD) in children.4

The list of proven problems is long, but none is more devastating than the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). On average, smoking during pregnancy doubles the risk of SIDS, and the odds increase with each cigarette. Or putting it the other way around, NOT smoking cuts the risk of SIDS in half.

We can’t possibly eliminate all of these fumes from our daily lives. But it is important to be aware of their potential danger and to avoid them when possible. The specific chemicals that make the fumes of many consumer products toxic are explored in later chapters, but for now, at this early point in your efforts to nurture your baby in utero, you might try one or two of the following suggestions today. more

1. Carlson, B. M. Human Embryology and Developmental Biology. St. Louis, Mo.: Mosby-Year Book, 1994.

Tsiaras, A. From Conception to Birth. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

2. Mennella, J. M. “Prenatal and Postnatal Flavor Learning by Human Infants.” Pediatrics, 2001, 107, e88.

3. Lindblad, A., Marsal, K., and Andersson, K. E. “Effect of Nicotine on Human Fetal Blood Flow.” Obstetrics and Gynecology, 1988, 72,
pp. 371–382.

4. Braun, J. M., Kahn, R. S., Froehlich, T., Auinger, P., and Lanphear, B. P. “Exposures to Environmental Toxicants and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in U.S. Children.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2006, 114, pp. 1904–1909.



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