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Sensory development in the womb

sensory development in the womb A taste sensation

Summary

Advances in early life research have revealed that once your unborn baby can hear, they’ll start to learn about speech, memory and emotional bonding. And incredibly, as their sense of taste and smell develop, they also start to form opinions about broccoli, sushi, or whatever you eat, before birth.

Sense of taste

Your unborn baby can’t hear the world around them until you’re at least 24 weeks pregnant as the cochlea, the sense organ translating sound into nerve impulses, hasn’t connected to their brain until then1. However, their sense of taste develops much earlier. In fact their taste buds mature as early as 13 weeks, which means they can start developing a taste for food early in the second trimester1.

As your baby’s sense of taste and smell develop, they also start to form opinions about food before birth.

In addition, from the 16th week of your pregnancy onwards, your baby’s sense of smell will be working and they will start to inhale amniotic fluid1,2. By the end of your pregnancy, they’ll regularly swallow large amounts of amniotic fluid and studies have shown that the ability to savour its flavour could have an impact on your baby’s food preferences2.


Amniotic fluid and its unique properties

Even before birth, babies show a preference for sweet tastes – but why? The answer may lie in the complex mix of nutrients, amino acids and glucose that make up amniotic fluid. Naturally slightly sweet in flavour, studies have shown that if even sweeter flavours are injected into the fluid, a baby will start to swallow more. But they will stop swallowing if bitter flavours are introduced2. This early preference continues when your newborn is fed breast milk, which also has a sweet taste.

“Even before birth, babies show a preference for sweet tastes.”

But amniotic fluid isn't just sweet. Research has shown that strong flavours from the foods you eat are also present. Incredibly, repeated exposure to these flavours can influence a baby’s enjoyment of them once they start weaning2-4. In one study, mums-to-be were asked to drink lots of carrot juice in their third trimester. When their babies began weaning, months later, they enjoyed carrot-flavoured cereal more than the control group whose mums hadn’t had the juice. Another study showed that babies whose mums had eaten lots of garlic were more likely to happily tuck into garlicky foods.

Drinking carrot juice whilst pregnant can influence your baby's enjoyment of them once they start weaning

You may have heard of ‘taste imprinting’, but let’s explore how it works and what it means beyond birth. This development of food preferences doesn’t just start in the womb, it also carries on throughout breastfeeding, as breast milk also contains flavours from the foods you eat. Taste imprinting is thought to explain the continuation of cultural preferences for foods flavoured with particular herbs or spices.

"Repeated exposure to these flavours can influence a baby’s enjoyment of them once they start weaning.”

Sense of smell

The aroma of food can summon vivid memories: warm apple pie may be reminiscent of tea at Grandma’s, while popcorn might remind you of a scary film. Again this is thought to start prior to birth. Newborns know and prefer their mother’s smell almost immediately and, in one study, when offered the choice between feeding from a breast that had amniotic fluid on it and one that hadn’t, most chose the one that smelt of amniotic fluid, suggesting it triggers memory6. But babies don’t just have a preference for the scent of their mother. They prefer the smell of the foods you eat most of in pregnancy too. Further research has shown that babies whose mums had eaten lots of star anise during pregnancy enjoyed the smell once they were born while those that hadn’t had prior exposure didn’t7. This fascinating finding suggests you have the power to influence your baby’s likes and dislikes through your own dietary choices, even at this early stage.

"Baby's exposed to star anise during pregnancy can enjoy the smell once they're born".

A healthy diet

Through these advancements in early life science, it’s clear that a healthy, balanced pregnancy diet provides you and your baby with more than just essential nutrients. This is key to their enjoyment and experience of different foods at weaning, which is definitely food for thought.

Next Steps

  • Try to eat a balanced diet every day, making sure you include good-quality protein, carbohydrates, dairy and a wide range of fruit and vegetables.
  • Avoid eating too many sugary, fatty or very salty treats.
  • If you like strong spices or flavours, eat them in the knowledge that it may help your baby enjoy them one day too. This will be useful when it comes to preparing meals that the whole family love.

View references

Hide references

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1. Lecanuet JP, Schaal B. Fetal sensory competencies. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol 1996;68:1-2.

2. Ventura AK, Worobey J. Early influences on the development of food preferences. Curr Biol 2013;23(9):R401-8.

3. Mennella JA et al. Garlic ingestion by pregnant women alters the odour of amniotic fluid. Chem Senses 1995;20:207-9.

4. Mennella JA et al. Prenatal and postnatal flavour learning by human infants. Pediatrics 2001;107:E88-E93.

5. Hepper PG et al. Long-term flavor recognition in humans with prenatal garlic experience. Psychobiol 2013;55:568-74.

6. Varendi H et al. Attractiveness of amniotic fluid odor: Evidence of prenatal olfactory learning? Acta Paediatr 1996;85:1223-7.

7. Schaal B et al. Human foetuses learn odours from their pregnant mother’s diet. Chem Senses 2000;25:729-37.

Last reviewed: 19th May 2016

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