Olfactory function in the human fetus: evidence from selective neonatal responsiveness to the odor of amniotic fluid

Behav Neurosci. 1998 Dec;112(6):1438-49. doi: 10.1037//0735-7044.112.6.1438.


This study was aimed at characterizing the level of specificity of the human newborn's response to an odor experienced in utero. Three groups of breast-fed infants and 3 groups of bottle-fed infants were examined on Postnatal Day 3 for their differential head-turning response when exposed to paired-choice tests contrasting the odors of either familiar (f) amniotic fluid (AF) or nonfamiliar (nf) AF or either of these AF odors and a control (C) stimulus. In fAF versus nfAF tests, the infants oriented preferentially to the odor of fAF, regardless of their feeding regimen (i.e., of their postnatal reexposure to AF-like cues in maternal milk). The fAF or nfAF versus C tests showed that this response pattern was caused by a true positive orientation toward fAF and not by avoidance from nfAF odor. This highly selective neonatal response to fAF odor is consistent with the hypothesis that the human fetus can detect and store the unique chemosensory information available in the prenatal environment and that this information becomes coupled with positive control of behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amniotic Fluid / physiology*
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / embryology
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Odorants*
  • Orientation / physiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Smell / physiology*