The science of scent: 3 surprising ways fragrance can help boost your baby’s development
It goes without saying that babies can be a mystery. But there’s one thing you can do to demystify some of the challenges of being a new parent—by leveraging the amazing power of scent. Experts share how.
When you’re a new parent there’s no such thing as too much information. You eagerly soak up everything you can on how to enhance your baby’s development, encourage bonding—and get that little one off to sleep at night.
But while there are parenting books galore on these topics, there’s one baby development secret that doesn’t get as much coverage: the impact of scent.
A growing body of research shows that baby products with a purposeful fragrance can help provide benefits to babies and parents alike.
“Certain scents can encourage mother-baby bonding, reduce stress in infants, induce calm, soothe a little one before sleep and even help improve a baby’s alertness and mood,” explains Alexandria Dinapoli Marzano, Senior Scientist, Baby Franchise R&D and Product Development, Johnson & Johnson.
For many parents around the world, the classic scents of Johnson’s® baby products bring back memories of childhood. That’s why, when Johnson & Johnson reformulated and expanded the popular product line earlier this year, with an eye toward a more naturally derived and pared down ingredient list, the company enlisted the help of some of the fragrance houses that had created the brand’s original, iconic scents.
A lot of time and care went into developing the new fragrances for the updated line: Chemists developed 59 global variants for the relaunched Johnson’s® Baby Lotion scent alone. The lead prototypes then went through rigorous consumer testing with moms and dads before the winning powdery-floral fragrance was chosen.
“We’re proud to say that 95% of consumers around the world who tested the final scent options for the new lotion all chose the same winner,” Marzano says. “It’s a true global fragrance, designed for parents and babies everywhere.”
One thing that didn’t change during the reformulation? The brand’s long-standing commitment to safety.
“Our standards are extremely rigorous,” says Homer Swei, Director of Product Stewardship, Johnson & Johnson. “Our fragrance ingredients follow International Fragrance Association (IFRA) global standards, as well as our own five-step safety assurance process.”
Johnson & Johnson’s protocol is so strict, in fact, that they limited perfumers to less than 25% of their typical toolbox of fragrance ingredients. “Other companies are moving toward essential oils, but many are known allergens, especially in infants and young children,” Swei explains. “We don’t allow any allergens in our baby products, and the fragrance ingredients that we do include have gone through many rounds of safety testing.”
In keeping with the brand’s commitment to full transparency, “our baby fragrances have been reviewed by independent groups and safety experts—and 100% of all scent ingredients are listed on the Johnson’s website,” Swei adds.
All of this painstaking work makes sense when you consider the benefits of a just-right fragrance, which has the potential to improve everything from bonding with your baby to how she processes the world around her. Whether you’re expecting or a newbie parent, here’s a deeper look at how the fascinating power—and scientific benefits—of scent can impact your baby’s day-to-day life.
Scent can help enhance your baby’s sensory experiences and development
At birth, newborns can’t see very well, so they rely on their sense of smell to familiarize themselves with the world.
“Scents provide stronger cues for evoking memories than, say, visual cues, because smells have direct access to parts of the brain that store memories,” explains Kumar Vedantam, Vice President, Technology and Applications at Givaudan, one of the fragrance houses that helped develop the Johnson’s scents. “This is why smelling certain things even as an adult—your grandmother’s home-cooked meal, freshly cut grass or the iconic Johnson’s lotion fragrance—can be so powerful and transport you back in time.”
Memorable fragrances can also help enhance the sensory experiences that a baby has in the bath.
“Strong memory-scent associations are formed, in part, through rituals that are repetitive, consistent, predictable and nurturing—such as a regular bath time routine,” explains Vedantam. “The bath is essentially a multisensorial playground, with every scent, bubble and splash contributing to your baby’s healthy development.”
For example, playing with bubbles can help your baby develop hand-eye coordination, and you can further enhance the experience with a scented wash or bubble bath. A product like Johnson’s® CottonTouch™ Newborn Wash & Shampoo, with its fresh, fruity floral scent, can help link fun, engaging bath time experiences to memory.
“The familiar scents of certain products,” explains Vedantam, “can help create a calming effect for babies because they know what to expect.”
Scent can help you bond with your baby
Another powerful aspect of a baby’s sense of smell: They can recognize their mothers by scent alone.
“Of the five senses, smell is the one that actually helps the most when it comes to bonding with mom or dad,” explains Vedantam. Even when your baby is asleep, that sense of smell is still awake, helping your little one recognize you.
According to research conducted by Rosemary White-Traut, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, director of nursing research at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, babies who were exposed to a scented product had lower stress levels, which was associated with more positive engagement with their parents post-bath—meaning more smiling, gazing and cooing—than those bathed with water alone.
Johnson & Johnson scientists studied over 350,000 baby sleep sessions, which led to breakthrough discoveries, including the fact that using fragrance as part of a nighttime routine can help a little one wind down.
Touch also plays an important role in fostering meaningful bonding: When infants receive consistent and repetitive social interactions, like touch, from a loving caretaker, they have been shown to make more eye contact, as well as vocalize and smile more.
This is why White-Traut suggests making baby massage—along with talking to your baby, making eye contact and rocking—a staple of your daily routine.
Wait for when your baby is relaxed (hint: not right before dinner), and put on some gentle music, like a lullaby. Place your baby on a soft changing pad or plush play mat, and massage your little one using a scented lotion, such as the orchard fruit and vanilla-scented Johnson’s® CottonTouch™ Newborn Face & Body Lotion.
Incorporating a pleasant scent into this routine can be more important than you might think: Research has found it can help increase oxytocin production—a hormone that promotes loving feelings.
Scent can help encourage sleep
To help inform its Johnson’s® Bedtime® line of products, company scientists studied over 350,000 baby sleep sessions, which led to breakthrough discoveries, including the fact that using fragrance as part of a nighttime routine can help a little one wind down.
Their research led to the 3-step Bedtime routine, which has been clinically proven to help a baby fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
The first step: bath time. A warm-water bath can help your baby unwind—and a familiar fragrance, such as the lavender scent found in Johnson’s® Bedtime® Moisture Wash, can actually help your baby settle down and get ready for sleep.
White-Traut’s research has found that babies who use familiar scented bath products spend around 25% less time crying after their bath before sleep.
Next, give your baby a massage. (Research has shown that a parent’s touch can promote better sleep.) Try a few minutes of gentle massage using oil or a cream like Johnson’s® Bedtime® Baby Lotion, which contains relaxing NaturalCalm® essences, a proprietary blend of gentle, calming aromas.
The third element for better baby slumber? Close contact in the form of talking, making eye contact and rocking—all of which, when coupled with massage, can lower cortisol levels that can inhibit sleep, according to White-Traut’s research.
At the end of the day, it’s moments like these—soothing a sleepy baby before bedtime or catching a gummy grin during a nightly bath—that will help any new parent think: Hey, I’ve got this after all.