Can smell really trigger emotions and affect my child’s behavior? You may be surprised to learn a little more about these links. April 29th is International Smell Day so we thought we would take a closer look at this amazing sense we have been gifted with.
What do you think of when you smell cinnamon, lavender, vanilla or lemon? Perhaps we should be asking what do you feel when you smell certain scents? Unlike our other senses, information from our olfactory receptors travels straight to the emotional part of our brains. From there it gets sent to other more cognitive brain centres, but our primary response to smell is emotional. This may explain why you can smell a certain scent and think immediately of the same person or event every time you smell it. You will also have an emotion attached to some smells, for example smelling apples and cinnamon may make you think of your grandma because she always baked apple crumble for you and you may have a very loving, positive emotion attached to that smell. Unfortunately, the same is also true for negative emotions associated with certain smells. These strong emotional reactions to smell (both positive and negative) occur even before our brain has registered what the smell is (e.g. “vanilla”) because identifying the smell only happens once information has been passed on to the “cognitive” areas of the brain. So smell really can impact our (and our children’s) mood and behavior!
Understanding this link between smell and emotion, as parents we need to be mindful that our child’s response to certain smells may really be a true reaction from them, and not a willful manipulation of the situation. This is probably most evident in a child’s reaction to the smell of certain foods. Especially for a child who has a particularly sensitive sense of smell. As adults, we have a dampened sense of smell, but babies in particular have a heightened sense of smell and can therefore have a stronger reaction than what we may feel is warranted in some instances. We can help their sensitive little sensory system from becoming overwhelmed by being aware of the smells in their environment. Be aware specifically of smells that stay with your baby (e.g. perfume, baby lotion, laundry detergent). And for very young babies be aware of intense smells that stay on you (e.g. perfumes, shaving gels, hair sprays) as they spend most of their time being on or close to you. Air fresheners and scented candles can also be rather overwhelming for babies and sensitive toddlers.
As adults, we can become better at either filtering out a smell once we know what it is or even moving ourselves so that we are further away from the smell. For children who are particularly sensitive to smell it is not so easy. As babies and toddlers are too young to identify that it may be a particular smell that is making them feel overwhelmed they are not able to tell you and therefore their behaviour often changes to alert us to the fact that something is not quite right in their sensory environment. So how do we know?! Well you have to become a sensory detective and try to put the clues together! Your sensitive little one may turn and bury his face in your shoulder or his own shirt, hold his breath, try to plug his nose or simply fuss more in environments with more intense smells.
- Simply being aware that your little one has a more sensitive sense of smell than you do can help you to understand his behaviour as well as help him to cope better with his sensory world.
- Steer clear of “smelly” situations where possible (e.g. sit far away from the kitchen in a restaurant).
- Investigating different smells as they come up can go a long way in helping him especially if it is an unfamiliar smell. Talking about it and giving him the words he can use can enable him to alert you in future if there is a particular smell bothering him.
- Serving food cool rather than warm can help to dampen the smell for him.
- Making sure his snack box is not packed with any smells that he finds overwhelming.
- Try out washing powders that have very subtle smells and avoid wearing perfume for a time to see if these things have an impact.
If you would like to find some really fun activities to do with your little one to help them explore their sense of smell, please take a look at our book Groovy Adventurers: How to encourage your baby to move from one developmental stage to the next while having a blast!
Wishing you a happy “Smell” Day, and hoping you have a host of positive smell associations as you explore this amazing sense with your little people!