While spending time with my friend and her three-month old recently, we were both remarking on how he perfectly exuded that “baby smell.” It’s hard to define, and people that have never spent time with an infant could never imagine it. It might be a mixture of baby lotion, baby powder, formula and soft skin, but whatever it is markedly pleasant and soothing. I decided to research what exactly causes the pleasant smell, and I actually found out that your baby’s scent says a lot about him and his overall health. In fact, some illnesses that are common in babies are first diagnosed by their scent.

That pleasant baby smell is almost always a result of the formula’s scent seeping through your baby’s skin. While formula doesn’t smell amazing on its own, it’s better when it’s processed in your baby’s bloodstream. Sometimes, a less pleasant smell can mask the characteristic one. If you notice a body odor coming from your baby, it might mean that you need to wash him more thoroughly. Baby fat causes a lot of wrinkles and crevices in your baby’s skin, so sweat and dirt can easily be collected there. Next time you bathe him, make sure you really pay attention to all of the hidden areas.

While these scents are normal, there are a few you should be wary of. Certain smells that come from your baby could be the first sign of a serious problem. Studies have shown the following:

A fishy smell is usually an indication that your baby has trimethylaminuria, which is a metabolic disorder that affects normal enzyme production. It’s rare, but notify your baby’s doctor immediately if you smell fish on your infant. Chances are, he didn’t eat a tuna steak.

A fruity smell on your baby’s breath is a clear indication that he is having trouble processing glucose, which is a sign of diabetes. This symptom is even prevalent in adults, so always be aware of it.

A maple syrups smell, as ridiculous as it sounds, might mean that your baby has maple syrup urine disease. Babies that cannot break down amino acids and other compounds have sweet-smelling urine. It’s a gene defect that should be addressed right away.

If your baby doesn’t have that innocent, powdery smell, make sure his scent doesn’t mimic something strange. The smell could be his body’s way of showing you something is wrong.

Sources: RL Puckett et al: Maple Syrup Urine Disease: Further Evidence that Newborn Screening May Fail to Identify Variant Forms. Molecular Genetics and Metabolism Volume 100 Issue 2 pp. 136-142 June 2010

Richard J Mackay et al: Trimethylaminuria: Causes and Diagnosis of a Socially Distressing Condition. The Clinical Biochemist Reviews Volume 21 Issue 1 pp. 33-43 2011

Sasigarn A Bowden: Diabetic Ketoacidosis at the Onset of Type 1 Diabetes British Medical Journal 343 July 2011

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