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Babies respond to taste and smell in the womb

A research team with Durham University’s Fetal and Neonatal Research Lab used 4D ultrasound scans to study the facial reactions of fetuses as they responded to the flavors of food their mothers consumed. 

The experts looked specifically at babies’ faces after their mothers consumed carrot and kale flavors. The babies demonstrated more “laughter-faces” when exposed to carrot flavor and more “cry-faces” when exposed to kale flavor. 

“A number of studies have suggested that babies can taste and smell in the womb, but they are based on post-birth outcomes while our study is the first to see these reactions prior to birth,” said lead researcher Beyza Ustun.

“As a result, we think that this repeated exposure to flavours before birth could help to establish food preferences post-birth, which could be important when thinking about messaging around healthy eating and the potential for avoiding ‘food-fussiness’ when weaning.”

“It was really amazing to see unborn babies’ reaction to kale or carrot flavors during the scans and share those moments with their parents.”

“This latest study could have important implications for understanding the earliest evidence for fetal abilities to sense and discriminate different flavors and smells from the foods ingested by their mothers.”

Study co-author Professor Benoist Schaal explained how this research could help us better to comprehend the development of smell and taste receptors. “Looking at fetuses’ facial reactions we can assume that a range of chemical stimuli pass through maternal diet into the fetal environment.”

“This could have important implications for our understanding of the development of our taste and smell receptors, and related perception and memory,” saps Professor Schaal.

Perhaps, exposing babies to healthy food in utero could help them develop a liking for more nutritious foods as they grow. The researchers are currently conducting a post-birth follow-up study with the same babies. 

“It could be argued that repeated prenatal flavour exposures may lead to preferences for those flavours experienced postnatally. In other words, exposing the fetus to less ‘liked’ flavours, such as kale, might mean they get used to those flavors in utero.”

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

This study appears in the journal Psychological Science.

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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