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The senses of touch and olfaction in early mother–infant interaction

02 April 2015
10 min read
Volume 23 · Issue 4


What happens between mothers and their infants has considerable developmental and functional significance. Mother–infant verbal and nonverbal communication is highly complex and notably reciprocal in nature. These exchanges are influenced by multiple factors and affect the formation of mother–infant ties and the co-regulation of emotions, physiology and motor behaviours. How the senses help to mediate these interactions and influence relationship quality is an important and diverse area of human biology and relationship study. This article will explore the contributions of two of the important nonverbal senses, touch and olfaction, on mother–infant interactions in the period shortly after birth.

For the human newborn, being able to recognise (and be recognised by) his/her own mother, locate the breast, latch on and feed are clearly evolutionarily important survival abilities. Clear indication of these innate abilities and the biological systems that control these behaviours exists. Infants born at term are broadly equipped with all the sensory systems of adults. However, some specific sensory abilities are less advanced than those seen in adults. Examples of this sensory limitation include, reduced visual acuity and focusing distance (Braddick and Atkinson, 2011) and challenges in integrating complex, multiple and simultaneous stimuli, particularly for those born preterm (Wickremasinghe et al, 2013). This article focuses on two important non-verbal/non-visual aspects of the newborn sensory world and considers their contributions to mother–infant interactions in the time shortly after birth. These senses are olfaction (smell) and the medley of tactile stimuli collectively referred to as touch. These two senses are thought to be highly significant in how infants self-regulate their physiology and behaviour (Barnard and Brazelton, 1990; Schaal and Durand, 2012).

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