Wow. The smell of of breast milk can have a powerful calming effect on a newborn undergoing a painful procedure.

A common, quick but painful procedure soon after birth is heel-prick blood sampling. But could the smell of breast milk or formula milk affect the acute pain felt by the newborn?

This was the hypothesis tested in a new study from Turkey by Tasci B. and Ayyildiz T.K. (2020).


The study:

84 newborns were divided into two groups (42 infant formula vs 42 breast milk).

All infants were full term (born between 38-42 weeks gestation).

Each baby weighed between 2500 – 4000g.

The heel-pricks were all done 1 hour after a feed.

Two milliliters of either the formula milk or the breast milk were soaked into filter paper and held under the baby's nose for three minutes.

  • The pain felt by each baby with the heel-prick blood sampling was assessed using the Neonatal Infant Pain Scale (NIPS Scoring System).
  • The infant heart rate and blood oxygen saturation was measured using a pulse oximeter.
  • Saliva samples were taken before and after the heel-prick and salivary cortisol levels were measured.
  • The crying of the newborn was recorded with a chronometer.


The results:

With the smell of breast milk: pain scoring and heart rate were lower.

To quote from the abstract "The pain threshold and heart rates of the newborn in the breast milk group were significantly lower than those in the formula milk group ( p < 0.001)."

With the smell of infant formula: salivary cortisol increased and oxygen saturation levels decreased.

To quote from the abstract: "Salivary cortisol in the formula milk group increased and oxygen saturation levels in these infants decreased significantly more as compared to the breast milk group ( p < 0.05)."



From birth, our olfactory system (our sense of smell) is so powerful it can change how we perceive and react to painful stimuli.

And the smell of breast milk is something extra-special as seems to have a powerful calming effect on a newborn. This study shows a whiff of breast milk can change how a baby responds to acute pain. Amazing!

To quote from the abstract:"Conclusions: The odor of breast milk may be helpful in reducing the pain of newborn during heel-prick blood sampling."


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Science reference:

Tasci B, Kuzlu Ayyildiz T. The Calming Effect of Maternal Breast Milk Odor on Term Infant: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Breastfeed Med. 2020 Nov;15(11):724-730. doi: 10.1089/bfm.2020.0116. Epub 2020 Oct 29. PMID: 33121256.


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