The Role of Olfaction in the Feeding Behavior of Human Neonates

  • Richard H. Porter
  • Heili Varendi
  • Jan Winberg


Chemical cues have been implicated in the feeding behavior of species belonging to all five classes of vertebrates, including (perhaps most surprisingly) birds (Burghardt, 1990; Roper, 1999; Stoddart, 1980). In various mammals, olfaction plays a critical role in the mediation of sucking and milk ingestion by neonates. This is illustrated by the severe deficits in nipple localization and attachment displayed by rat and mouse pups following olfactory bulbectomy (Cooper and Cowley, 1976; Risser and Slotnick, 1987) or peripheral destruction of the nasal olfactory receptors by infusions of zinc sulfate solution (Singh et al., 1976). Similar adverse effects were observed in young rabbits when their mother’s nipples were covered with a thin rubber film (Distel and Hudson, 1985), and in rat pups after the dam’s ventrum had been thoroughly washed (Teicher and Blass, 1976). The significance of the odor of mother’s milk and breasts for successful human nursing has been suspected for centuries. For example, a survey of documents written by medical authorities between 1500–1800, found that 55% of the authors who discussed necessary attributes of wet nurses’ breast milk included «good smell» as a required quality (Fildes, 1986). As seen below, such early beliefs are supported by recent empirical evidence indicating that components of the typical pattern of behavior involved in effective breastfeeding by newborn humans are activated and directed by maternal odors.


Newborn Infant Human Neonate Olfactory Bulbectomy Zinc Sulfate Solution Sucking Activity 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard H. Porter
    • 1
  • Heili Varendi
    • 2
  • Jan Winberg
    • 3
  1. 1.URA 1291 CNRS/INRANouzillyFrance
  2. 2.Tartu University Children’s HospitalEstonia
  3. 3.Karolinska InstituteStockholmSweden

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