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How does a baby know its mother?
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Here's How Your Baby Knows You're Their Mom

They’re biologically programmed to recognize you.

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One of the biggest worries I had before giving birth was whether or not my baby would know I was his mom. Sure, he lived inside of me for almost a year. But once he was out in this great big world, how would he know the difference between me and my mom or mother-in-law, especially since they were so excited to be actively involved in the early days of his care? It didn't take long for me to realize that he could tell the difference between me and his grandmothers, but how does a baby know its mother? It all comes down to the senses.

A baby uses four important senses to help them identify their mom: their sense of hearing, their sense of smell, their sense of touch, and their vision. “Since so many senses are involved in newborns recognizing their mothers, I think it’s a combination of hearing their mothers’ voices, hearing and feeling their mothers’ heartbeats, the smell of their mothers’ bodies, and the sensation of being held and touched in a way that replicates what they sensed and experienced in the womb,” explains Dr. Jessica Madden, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician, neonatologist, and international board-certified lactation consultant.

Do newborns know their mother at birth?

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The short answer is yes, newborns know their mother at birth. “Research has shown that when newborns are held skin-to-skin by their mothers that there are significant changes in their vital signs — their breathing rates and heart rates slow down as they become calm against their mothers’ bodies, and they are also better able to regulate their body temperatures,” Madden tells Romper. In other words, the baby knows they are being held by their mother right away. But exactly how does a baby know its mother? Again, it’s that combination of senses.

Babies can actually hear their mother’s voice while in utero. “There's evidence that babies begin to recognize their mother's voice as early as the third trimester of pregnancy,” Dr. Rebekah Diamond, M.D., board-certified pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University, tells Romper. “Right after birth, infants seem to recognize their mother's voice and have a preference for her voice over others. They also have a preference for sounds made in the language their mother spoke while pregnant, further showing how much mom's speech has shaped their brain development.” This means that by the time your little one is born, they already know who you are just by the sound of your speaking voice.

A 2012 study published in Acta Paediatrica found that unborn babies actively listen to their mother's voice in the womb, specifically her vowel sounds, during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy. The findings were evidence that the mother has “first dibs on influencing the child's brain," as study researcher Patricia Kuhl put it.

Do babies know their mother's heartbeat?

During pregnancy, the baby is exposed to the sound of their mother’s heartbeat, and they can hear this heartbeat from seven months gestation. “Newborn babies are soothed by the sound of heartbeat,” Dr. Pierrette Poinsett, M.D., board-certified pediatrician and medical consultant for the online platform Mom Loves Best, tells Romper.

Exposure to the sound has a substantial impact during utero. “A mother's heartbeat is audible during pregnancy,” explains Diamond. “During the third trimester, the fetal brain has developed enough to be able to recognize that this heartbeat is an important sound. Hearing and responding to the sound of a mother's heartbeat is also important in strengthening further fetal brain development.”

Do newborns know their mother's scent?

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Babies not only recognize their mother's smell — they are calmed by it. “In the NICU I work in,” Madden tells Romper, “we keep small sachets, made in the shape of a heart, that have mothers’ body scents on them in patients’ isolettes (incubators). These sachets help to keep our premature patients calm and connected to their mothers while hospitalized and separated.”

According to Madden, fetuses are continually exposed to the unique smell and taste of their mothers’ amniotic fluid, which contributes to a baby’s highly developed sense of smell at birth. “There are multiple studies that have shown that newborns have a preference for their own mothers’ breast milk and axillary (armpit) body odor within the first week of life compared with others,” she adds. The smell of your skin relaxes your baby and creates a powerful bond, which is why skin-to-skin contact is so important. “Being able to smell, hear, taste, and touch their mothers helps to ease babies’ transition to life outside of the womb, promotes bonding, and can also help babies (and their moms) to catch onto breastfeeding sooner,” Madden explains.

When can a baby recognize their parent's faces?

There is some evidence that suggests babies already start preferring their mom’s faces within hours of being born. “Babies are born with fuzzy vision, and can see things clearly only when they are very close to them,” Diamond explains. “This means that the faces they are able to learn and then recognize are from people who hold them the most.” By the time they’re three months old, according to Diamond, babies are “excellent” at distinguishing their mothers’ faces from those of strangers and show a strong preference for them.

Because a baby spends so much time at a close distance to their mom's face, they become somewhat of a facial recognition expert. In fact, 2005 research performed at The University of Sheffield in England found that babies at six months of age were actually better at picking out individual faces among a group than adults were.

If you are a mom-to-be worried that your baby won't recognize you, don't be. They’re already in the process of getting to know you and forming a bond.

Studies:

Moon, C., Lagercrantz, H. and Kuhl, P.K. (2013), Language experienced in utero affects vowel perception after birth: a two-country study. Acta Paediatr, 102: 156-160. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.12098

University of Sheffield. (2005, April 19). Babies recognise individual monkey faces. Babies recognise individual monkey faces - Archive - The University of Sheffield. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/345-1.174675

Experts:

Dr. Jessica Madden, M.D., board-certified pediatrician, neonatologist, international board-certified lactation consultant, and medical director at Aeroflow Breastpumps

Dr. Pierrette Poinsett, M.D., board-certified pediatrician and medical consultant for MomLovesBest

Dr. Rebekah Diamond, M.D., board-certified pediatrician, assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University, and author of Parent Like a Pediatrician

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