Smell, Taste, and Nutrition: Building Blocks for Early Brain Development

Early childhood is the perfect time to introduce a nutritious diet and stimulate a baby's sense of smell and taste, both of which greatly influence eating habits. By understanding the development of smell and taste, as well as the importance of appropriate nutrition for babies and infants, we begin to appreciate how these senses contribute to healthy development in the future.

More Milk, Please!

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that newborns be fed breastmilk exclusively for six months. After this period, safe solid foods should be introduced one at a time, with the option of continual breastfeeding. Breastfeeding can be sustained for one year or longer depending on the desire of the mother and infant. Adhering to this pattern supports nutritional, health, and cognitive advantages not supplied through other milk sources. Children regularly breastfed are better protected against diseases including type 1 and type 2 diabetes, asthma, childhood obesity, lymphoma, leukemia, and Hodgkin's. Additionally, studies indicate that children breastfed have higher academic outcomes and improved teacher reports compared to their peers not breastfed exclusively for three months.4 Even stronger positive effects of breastfeeding are found with preterm infants who are at high risk for adverse cognitive and developmental outcomes. Mealtime is a wonderful opportunity to give a baby attention, gain physical contact, and caregivers can take advantage of this time to begin building a stable relationship with their baby.

The Role of Familiar Smells

Smell is the most advanced sense that babies have at birth. The olfactory receptors within the nose contain cells that allow for smell and send chemical messages to the brain. This capability develops so rapidly that fetuses can smell prior to birth.1 A newborn is attracted to the smell of breast milk immediately from birth, illustrating the natural desire for a mother's milk. Just like adults, newborns turn toward enjoyable smells and away from unpleasant ones. Familiar smells can sooth an infant, and a favorite blanket that smells of breast milk or baby lotion, can be a welcome stress-reliever during stressful times such as a vaccaccination.1 Parents can help their children learn through their senses of smell. Differentiating and naming roses, clean laundry, baby shampoo, and crayons is a fun way to help children categorize different smells while simultaneously stimulating hearing, cognitive, and olfactory development.

Sweet then Sour

More than 75% of taste comes from the sense of smell. As smell and taste are the two most closely connected senses, it should come as no surprise that the development of these senses occurs together. Taste buds begin to form in utero around the seven-week mark.2 Babies are born with a "sweet tooth." This is evident in their preference for breast milk and formula, both of which contain sugar. A taste for salty or bitter foods begins to form around four months of age. Research suggests that babies regularly breastfed are more open to a wide variety of flavors as they have grown accustomed to the changing taste of breast milk.2 The sense of taste can be stimulated through a gradual introduction to different flavors and spicy foods. Children are often reluctant to try new foods, especially when first starting off on solid foods. Research tells us that it can take 10-15 experiences with a new taste before a toddler starts to develop a taste for it. Parents can encourage their child to try new food by taking a few bites and noting the deliciousness!

Implications of Sensory Development

As smell and taste play a large role in everyday life, deficits in these senses can impair various aspects of one's life. Sensory processing disorder (SPD) may affect only one sense or multiple senses. SPD varies on an individual basis as some suffer with overstimulation of senses, such that they find specific sensory input unbearable, while others show little to no reactions to stimulation, especially in regard to pain and extreme heat/cold. Children with sensory processing disorder tend to have lower self-esteem, be more socially isolated, and face academic difficulties.3 Although the cause of these impairments remains unclear, treatment utilizing occupational therapy with sensory integration has been proven effective. As this disorder is often misdiagnosed as a behavioral problem, accurate expectations and awareness of sensory development allows parents to more appropriately intervene after observation of these issues. The adverse impacts of this disorder illustrate the significance of appropriate sensory development in childhood.

Nutritious and Delicious

Providing essential vitamins and minerals through various foods becomes vital as a baby ages. Foods rich in protein, healthy fats, vitamin A, iodine, and iron contribute to the optimum maturity of children. As the low-fat craze continues to spread throughout our country, parents need to keep in mind that a healthy amount of fat contributes to brain and nerve development.5 Therefore children under age two should not be restricted from fat as this developmental period is critical for cognitive growth. A calcium-rich diet contributes to the expansion of strong bones and teeth. Furthermore, introducing a wholesome diet and healthy attitude toward food during early childhood can result in engagement in favorable lifestyles down the road.


Sethi, Anita. Your Baby's Sense of Smell. Available online here.

Rones, Nancy. Your Baby's Developing Senses. Smell: Making Scents. Available online here.

SPD Foundation. "About SPD." Last modified April 30, 2012. Available online here.

American Academy of Pediatrics. Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk.  Published February 27, 2012.  Available online here.

DeLong RG. Effects of nutrition on brain development in humans. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1993; 57: 286S-290S.