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Why the Sense of Smell is Vital to your Child's Development. Written by Dr. Beulah vd Westhuizen

There are many wondrous things to discuss with regard to the sense of smell, or olfaction, as it is also known.


Like taste, smell is a chemical and a so-called “near- sense.” Its importance is depicted in its early onset, a mere 3 months after conception, categorizing it as a primitive sense as well. Yes, 3 months after conception, this sense is already working its way to the brain by means of olfactory bulbs being developed, connecting to the limbic area in the brain.


The newborn is guided by smell. Barely born, the infant that is placed on her mother’s chest will move toward the breast to suckle. Researchers have also found that a newborn can recognize the difference between the scent of their mother and other women. A child’s olfactory system allows them to discriminate between odours. It is important to note that the olfactory pathway does not have a filter system (unlike touch) and thus requires more cognitive involvement to ignore an unpleasant odour, such as smoke.


As mentioned, both taste and smell are chemical senses, thus physically responding to a chemical molecule in the environment that stimulates the pathway in different ways. As such, these two senses are tied together, and almost function as a unit. We all know how the taste of food is enhanced when we breathe in the odour first. Almost everyone has experienced having no appetite when we are congested or when we have a cold because nothing tastes good.


The olfactory bulb, which lies at the top of the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain, has direct access to the amygdala and the hippocampus. These two brain areas are situated in the limbic system, which is the seat of our emotions and memory. Interestingly enough, the senses of sight, sound, and touch do not pass through these brain structures. This is the reason why a scent like cinnamon can conjure up a memory of Christmas, pancakes, and family times. This response and correlation is instantaneous and spontaneous and are not filtered, making the sense of smell an important aspect of reliving past memories.


Aside from memories, smelling a particular scent already smelled before can also induce familiar emotions within your child. For example, if a food’s specific aroma reminds them of their grandmother cooking in her kitchen, they may feel a sense of happiness and nostalgia. In other words, smelling scents can also make your child feel emotions. It is important to note that smell can also trigger behaviour. Several research studies have shown that scents can trigger and affect how people behave. Since scents can tap into people’s emotions, they have the power to influence and motivate their actions and decisions. For example, if you enter a pleasant-smelling store, you’ll most likely buy more goods from that store than from another store that reeks of rotten eggs. Similarly, if you give your child two kinds of fruits, one strawberry and the other durian, there’s a great chance that they’ll choose to eat the strawberry because of its better and sweeter scent. Ultimately, the impact of odours on children and even adults’ behaviours can’t be denied.


When it comes to children, olfaction plays a crucial role in learning. As much as young children learn by touching and tasting, they learn by means of smell. As children get older, one often forgets the important role that this sense plays and should be utilized in any learning experience as smell accompanies memory and recollection. Just as children recognises people and places by their scent, learning content can carry an association with a certain smell.


People with a sensitivity to odours are usually emotionally sensitive as well. Logically, the opposite is also true, those with a dulled sense of smell might display dulled emotions or struggle to read the emotions of others.


While considered one of the most overlooked senses, a person’s sense of smell is vital to developing their other senses. The sense of smell is often neglected in a learning environment. It can be utilized in therapeutic contexts and even assist children in strengthening another sense or even a cognitive activity.


Did you know that humans can identify 10 different categories of smell?

1. Fragrant

2. Woody

3. Fruity (non-citrus)

4. Chemical

5. Minty/ peppermint

6. Sweet

7. Popcorn

8. Lemon

9. Pungent and

10. Decayed.


Identifying scents is one of the essential abilities that completes your child’s development. Without a sense of smell, your kid might find it hard to develop some of the other vital aspects about them, such as their memory, emotions, behaviours, and other senses. For this reason, it’s essential to allow your child to explore and enhance their sense of smell.



Use the list above, and see if you can identify all these scents with your child throughout the next week. Have a discussion about what they are smelling and see what emotions pop up. Have fun!

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