By Cathy Daub, PT CD, CCE (BWI)
By Cathy Daub PT, CCE and CD(BWI)
I had the honor some years ago of escorting Nils Bergman, MD to New Jersey hospitals where he gave talks about the importance of mother baby skin-to-skin contact. He gave a fireside chat at the Stoney Brook Hospital in Long Island that I will never forget. That and along with my physical therapy experience with special needs children taught me something very important.
First, let me ask you a question. We all experience the world only through our five senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. Which of these do you believe is most crucial for our survival? There is an anatomical feature in the brain that gives us the answer. Did you know that all the senses travel by a network of nerves to the midbrain indirectly except for one – that one is actually hard wired into the limbic brain. The limbic brain is the seat of our emotions and is the connection between the cortical or thinking brain, and our primal brain. All the other senses travel indirectly to the limbic brain.
Have you guessed the answer yet? It is only the olfactory bulbs that are hard wired into the limbic brain. Our ability to smell is crucial to our survival. Even a one-cell amoeba must use smell to find food.
At the fireside chat with Nils Bergman, he described that a baby’s senses are heightened, and more sensitive at the moment of birth. This is especially true for a premature baby in an incubator. The smell from antiseptic gloves of someone reaching into the incubator is very strong. The sound of the motor of the incubator is huge in the ears of the baby.
Sight is very interesting. Nils mentioned that if a premature baby is receiving more than 240 lux of light, he/she cannot establish a sleep/wake cycle which is needed for the brain to mature. The residents went around to all the incubators in the NICU and discovered that even with blinds over the baby’s eyes, shades down on the windows, and very dim lights in the room only at the desks, the light meter measured 1000 to 1500 lux of light and more. They realized that being in the incubator was doing more harm than good to the babies.
Smell is so important for our survival that a baby human and/or animal have been programmed for thousands of years to find the mother’s breast to suckle. As it turns out, the smell of the amniotic fluid that the fetus has been swimming in and tasting in the womb, is either the same or very similar to the smell of the colostrum of the mother’s nipple. The baby actually uses smell to find his mother’s nipple to suckle. This is survival programmed into us for thousands of years.
This is the reason that essential oils can confuse the baby at a critical time in her life – the moment of birth when she needs to bond and attach to her mother. Babies are highly sensitive to their surroundings at birth. The infant needs to be able to smell her mother to find her breasts. The baby could react to the strong scent of an oil which could either inhibit or make it more difficult for the infant to find the life-giving breast.
Some believe that perhaps some lavender on a cotton swab placed under the mother’s nose could help her relax and not interfere with the process, but the natural pheromones in the birth room could be disturbed. Pheromones are airborne chemical messengers released from the body, that have a physical or emotional effect on another member of the same species. We can’t see them but they spread quickly through the air. Therefore even a cotton swab with lavender under the mother’s nose could interfere with the smell a baby needs find her mother’s breast. We must remember that over the millennium, a baby is programmed to smell her mother – not the aroma from scented oils.