Three-way baby body odour boosts parental bond

A scarf-like device that mothers of premature babies could wear collects their body scent and can then be kept with the newborn to sooth the infant and even improve the bond between mother and child. A similar system that works in reverse for fathers could help familiarise them with the scent of their newborn child even while he or she is in the intensive care unit or other healthcare setting and the father or mother are absent.

Dominika Potuzakova, Misha Croes and Loe Feijs of the Department of Industrial Design, at Eindhoven University of Technology, in The Netherlands undertake research in the area of olfactory semantics and how this odours might be incorporated and associated with product design. Odour plays an almost primordial role in helping to build the bond between parent and child and mother and child, in particular. Skin-to-skin contact between mother and newborn being an important early way to form the connection. But, in the case of premature babies this is not always easy or even possible.

The team set out to find a way to help those parents whose child has been born weeks or even months before the full term of approximately nine months. Such infants often have health problems, not least because they have not undergone complete development in the womb. They must therefore spend protracted periods in a neonatal intensive care unit, or incubator, to sustain life and allow them to develop further.

The Oris scarf has scent absorbing bubbles that expand in contact with the mother’s neck and absorb her scent. When she removes the scarf the bubbles contract somewhat to trap the scent but when the scarf is then laid safely near the baby they open up again in the warmth and slowly release odour molecules from the mother so that the baby catches her scent. An entirely alternative design used in the opposite direction is used to trap the baby’s own scent and encase it in a “snuff box” type device that the father might use when away from the baby to get a “fix” of his newborn’s smell.

Feijs and colleagues write that, “The early bonding between parents and their (prematurely born) babies is crucial for the future physiological as well as mental development of the babies.”The next step is to test the designs of these scent traps with real parents to see whether they really do improve the wellbeing and development of the baby and the emotional states of the parents.

Potuzakova, D., Croes, M.J.G. and Feijs, L.M.G. (2016) ‘Semantics-driven design for bonding with human scent‘, Int. J. Arts and Technology, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp.237-252.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.