Conference Paper

Mutual olfactory recognition between mother and child



Roberts SC & Eryaman F (2017) Mutual olfactory recognition between mother and child. XIII International Society for Human Ethology Congress, Stirling, UK, 01.08.2016-05.08.2016. Human Ethology Bulletin, 32 (1), pp. 42-52.;

The ability of infants to recognize their mother is an important factor in the development of mother-infant social relationships. Infants must be able to distinguish her from other individuals before they form strong maternal attachment, and learning individual characteristics of the child likely helps to cement the mother’s emotional bonding with the child. Existing evidence demonstrates that very young infants can discriminate their mother’s odour and that this facilitates the onset and duration of breastfeeding, but it is not known whether this ability is maintained after weaning. Here, we investigated recognition of mothers by children of toddler age (3 – 5 years), and maternal recognition of her child, through body odour. Nineteen mother-child pairs wore clean t-shirts for 2 consecutive nights, and both mothers and children were then tested for correct identification of their respective mother/child’s odour from an odour line-up of 6 samples. We found that mothers were able to recognise their child’s odour at rates above chance, but toddlers were not. Neither breastfeeding duration nor hours spent together on an average day were associated with correct odour recognition by either mothers or children. However, higher perceived pleasantness of their child’s odour during testing was associated with higher identification success, suggesting a possible cue to correct identification in mothers. Mothers who correctly identified their child’s odour were also more likely to correctly identify the sex of odour donors. Our study contributes to the growing literature suggesting that odour may be important in maternal-child attachment.

olfaction; smell; olfactory communication; bonding

Human Ethology Bulletin: Volume 32, Issue 1

Publication date31/03/2017
Date accepted by journal07/03/2017
PublisherInternational Society for Human Ethology
Publisher URL
ConferenceXIII International Society for Human Ethology Congress
Conference locationStirling, UK

People (1)


Professor Craig Roberts

Professor Craig Roberts

Professor of Social Psychology, Psychology