Healthy Living

Why Do People Want To 'Eat' Cute Babies? Scientists Say It's Their Smell

Mom kissing baby on cheek
The baby-eating impulses people get when they see cute children is rooted in smell. D. Sharon Pruitt, CC BY 2.0

Babies tend to evoke a wide range of emotions in people, such as happiness, love, and even hunger. The urge to “eat up” a cute baby or coo uncontrollably at the sight of a chubby-cheeked, plump newborn may have crossed your mind one too many times. According to a recent study, these baby-eating impulses may be linked to a baby’s smell that activates the reward circuits in the brain.

Findings published in Frontiers in Psychology unveil that a woman’s desire to “gobble up” a baby is due to the child's smell, which triggers the brain’s reward circuits just like the odors of foods do. Researchers at the University of Montreal mapped the brains of two groups of 15 women; one group of women had never given birth, and the other group had given birth within the past three to six weeks. All of the women in the study were non-smokers. Both groups of women were asked to smell the pajamas of two-day-old infants while their brains were being scanned.

As the women smelled the baby pajamas, the researchers reported the brain’s reward circuits were activated. The group of mothers showed the greatest activation compared to those who had never given birth. The sensation that the mothers got from sniffing an infant was linked to the feeling of obtaining delicious food.   

"This circuit makes us desire certain foods and causes addiction to tobacco and other drugs," said Johannes Frasnelli, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Montreal's Department of Psychology, in a news release. "Not all odors trigger this reaction. Only those associated with reward, such as food or satisfying a desire, cause this activation."

Researchers suspect that the reward circuit’s response encouraged mothers to feed and protect their kids, but not to eat them.

"The fact that the pleasure centers are activated makes it more rewarding at a time when parenthood is very intensive and depleting. Our little receptors are lighting up and we have good feelings to offset all the hard work and exhaustion," Diane Sanford, a psychologist who specializes in maternal child health, told NBC News. Sanford also shared that since parents do not get much positive feedback during the first few months of a baby’s life, sensing the child’s smell evokes good feelings that can diminish the exhaustion during the first year as parents.

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