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The Science of Kid Smell

Research shows that adults can smell danger and young children have the same sense of smell, but oddly, kids cannot smell danger without help.

Children are born with an innate sense of smell that helps them survive, but they don’t know how to use it without the help of their parents. While fight or flight responses are instinctive, kids have to be taught which odors are dangerous and which ones are safe first, Rachel Herz, a psychologist, neuroscientist, and author of Why We Eat What We Eat, told Fatherly.

“Children are less likely to be able to know what the smell of danger might be than an adult would be because they haven’t learned to the same extent what means what,” Herz says. An adult knows that gas and spoiled food both smell dangerous, but “a child would be less likely to know that, though they have the same capacity from an olfactory perspective to be able to detect the smell.”

Prior research has shown that newborn babies are able to recognize the scent of their mothers’ amniotic fluids and can tell the difference their mom’s breast milk and milk that comes from other women. But for pretty much everything else, babies take cues from their caretakers. This also explains why kids resist certain foods at first, only to demand them once they see mom or dad take a bite. Children learn to sense the smells and tastes of danger by associating the safe activities of trusted adults with particular sensory input. Broccoli smells dangerous — until dad takes a bite.

When it comes to the odors of unknown adults, children tend to default towards fearing the unknown. There are advantages to this scheme—kids who smell strangers and run for their lives are perhaps more safe than trusting toddlers. But at the same time, this means your child could be completely terrified of a close family friend because of an unfamiliar smell, while embracing strangers who share your cologne. Following your nose is an ill-advised survival skill.

So Herz does not recommend relying on your children’s noses to keep them safe. Rather than teaching them to leave when a situation smells wrong, try describing visual threats. And if you must educate your children in the way of the sniffer, try presenting certain smells as dangerous, such as smoke, spoiled food, or cooking gas, so that they can learn by example. Better yet, Herz says, introduce your children to positive smells. That way, they’ll come to recognize that the opposite of a good smell is worth avoiding. Besides, kids don’t need help scaring themselves.

“Kids are built to be afraid of the new because the new could be dangerous,” Herz says. “That’s one of the reasons kids need parents around is to help them label smells as safe and dangerous.”