Dresden study shows: Parents can recognize their children by their body odor


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Dresden study shows: Parents can recognize their children by their body odor

The Dresden study showed that parents recognize their children by their body odor. However, this changes during childhood. For good reason.

Laura Schäfer (left) does research at TU Dresden on how parents rate their children's smell.  Mothers of children find their smell unpleasant since the age of nine.

Laura Schäfer (left) does research at TU Dresden on how parents rate their children’s smell. Mothers of children find their smell unpleasant since the age of nine.
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The child smells well. Its scent is a mixture of milk, baby cream and the freshness of powder. It not only delights parents, but also casts a spell on others. Dresden psychologist Laura Schaeffer dealt extensively with this fragrance in her thesis. But also with the question of when parents can no longer smell their children. In a family study, the scientist examined how fathers, especially mothers, perceive their children’s body odor. In the early years of life, your baby’s scent is recognized more than average and is positively evaluated all the time. But this changes in childhood. There is even a mechanism between mothers and sons perhaps intended to prevent incest.

Human odor studies tend to be more specialized in the home. But that’s exactly where Laura Schaeffer wants to get her out of it. A scientist from TU Dresden Medical School dedicated her thesis to baby odors and their effect on the mother-child bond. Data collection took a total of three years, and the sample included 300 participants, with children aged 0-18 years divided into four groups. The psychologist is now awarded the Carl Gustav Carus Award for her thesis. She is one of seven award winners who have convinced the University of Dresden Medical Foundation jury with their scientific work.

Baby things from the freezer

For Laura Schäfer’s study, participating families had to wash their clothes first. There was a trial night that took place in a familiar home environment for mother and child. Families received a special detergent provided in advance that cleans bed linen without smell. In addition, there was an odorless T-shirt for mother and child, which had to be worn one night and delivered to the clinic the next day. “We preserved the scent samples by freezing them,” explains the scientist.

After a few weeks, the mothers were asked to come into the clinic for a test lasting approximately 45 minutes. Her olfactory condition was examined. Then children’s and young people’s shirts were presented to them. The scientists wanted to find out if the clothes their children were wearing were recognizable and how pleasant or smelly body odor was. A saliva sample was also taken to determine hormone status and HLA profile. The human leukocyte antigen system is a group of genes important for the functioning of the immune system. In the binary research, it is hypothesized that people with a different HLA profile tend to find each other more attractive, which would strengthen the immune system of the potential offspring.

Natural protection against incest

About 99 percent of body odor is water, and the rest is proteins, fats, and other substances. Each body odor is individual, it represents the olfactory imprint of a person, which nevertheless changes over the course of life and is also influenced by eating habits. Studies by Dresden scientists have already shown that body odor also affects perceived attractiveness.

This has now been confirmed with new investigations. Mothers of sons begin to hate their son’s body odor at the age of nine. “One can also talk here about preventing olfactory incest,” says Laura Schaeffer. “Rejection goes hand in hand with an increase in testosterone levels.” Incidentally, this phenomenon is repeated after puberty. Among mothers and girls, these effects were not found to be excessively random.

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Basically, smells that are perceived more frequently and are therefore familiar are viewed as more pleasant. Whether this habituation to smell is also the reason why adult sons and their mothers smell each other better again needs to be clarified in later studies. We conducted a cross-sectional study across age groups 0-3, 4-8, 9-13 and 14-18. In order to be able to more accurately show and interpret the effects on individuals, a long-term study may be useful. She also would like to devote more of her research to the sense of smell. It is often perceived subconsciously, but it primarily controls our behavior and is instrumental in our communication.

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