Direct evidence that babies react differently to different smells and tastes while in the womb – ScienceDaily


Scientists have recorded the first direct evidence that babies react differently to different smells and tastes while in the womb by looking at their facial expressions.

A study conducted by the Fetal and Newborn Research Laboratory at Durham University, UK, conducted 4D ultrasound scans of 100 pregnant women to see how their babies responded after being exposed to flavors from foods their mothers ate.

The researchers looked at how fetuses reacted to flavors of carrots or turnips soon after the mothers ate the flavors.

Fetuses exposed to carrots showed more ‘laughing face’ responses while those exposed to cabbage showed more ‘cry’ responses.

Their findings could advance our understanding of the evolution of taste and olfactory receptors in humans.

Researchers also believe that what pregnant women eat may influence children’s taste preferences after birth and may have implications for establishing healthy eating habits.

The study was published in the journal psychology.

Humans experience flavor through a combination of taste and smell. It is thought that this may occur in fetuses through inhalation and ingestion of amniotic fluid in the womb.

Principal investigator Besa Auston, a graduate researcher in the Embryology and Newborn Research Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Durham University, said:

“A number of studies have suggested that babies can taste and smell in the womb, but they are dependent on postnatal outcomes while our study is the first to see such reactions before birth.

“As a result, we believe that this frequent exposure to flavors before birth can help determine food preferences after birth, which may be important when considering messages about healthy eating and the possibility of avoiding ‘food annoyance’ at weaning.”

“It was really amazing to see the unborn babies react to the flavors of kale or carrots during the scan and to share those moments with their parents.”

The research team, which also included scientists from Aston University, Birmingham, UK, and the National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Burgundy, France, examined mothers, aged between 18 and 40, at both 32 weeks and 36 weeks’ gestation for interactions Baby face with turnip and carrot flavors.

Mothers were given one capsule containing approximately 400 mg of carrot or 400 mg of cabbage powder about 20 minutes before each wipe. They were asked not to consume any flavored food or drinks one hour before the examination.

The mothers also did not eat or drink anything containing carrots or cabbage on the day of the test to control factors that could affect the fetus’s reactions.

The facial reactions seen in both flavor groups, compared with fetuses in the control group who were not exposed to either flavor, showed that exposure to a small amount of carrot or turnip flavor was sufficient to induce the reaction.

Co-author Professor Nadia Reissland, Head of the Embryology and Newborn Research Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Durham University, supervised the research by Besa Auston. She said:

“Previous research in my lab has suggested that 4D ultrasound scans are a way to monitor fetal reactions to understand how they respond to maternal health behaviors such as smoking and their mental health including stress, depression and anxiety.

“This latest study could have important implications for understanding the early evidence of a fetus’s abilities to sense and distinguish different flavors and aromas from the foods their mothers eat.”

Co-author Professor Benoist Schall, from the National Center for Scientific Research – University of Burgundy, France said:

“Given the fetuses’ face interactions, we can assume that a range of chemical stimuli pass through the mother’s diet into the fetus’s environment.

“This may have important implications for our understanding of the development of our taste and olfactory receptors, and related cognition and memory.”

The researchers say their findings may also help inform mothers about the importance of taste and healthy diets during pregnancy.

They have now begun a follow-up study with the same babies after birth to see if the effect of the flavors they experienced in the womb affects their acceptance of different foods.

Professor Jackie Plessett, co-author of the research, from Aston University, said:

“It could be argued that repeated exposure to flavors before birth may lead to preferences for those flavors experienced after birth. In other words, exposing a fetus to less ‘liked’ flavors, such as kale, may mean that it is getting used to those flavors in the womb.”

“The next step is to examine whether fetuses show fewer ‘negative’ responses to these flavors over time, which leads to greater acceptance of those flavors when babies first taste them outside the womb.”



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