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What Does Birth Smell Like?

Can you smell when a woman is about to give birth? Maybe.

This was a question from a dad in my childbirth class over the weekend. We’d just finished watching a video of indigenous women giving birth in Brazil in the 1970s and while it’s one of the most reassuring, awesome childbirth videos ever made, there’s no shortage of blood and ooze: placentas, membranes, fluids.

It’s clear that in birth there’s a lot of stuff that comes out– stuff that this dad remarked, “looks like it might smell bad. But does it?”

It’s such a good question. Over the past few months I’ve actually read some pretty cool stuff about what a woman in labor smells like and what these smells might mean.
By all accounts, an undisturbed, healthy birth usually smells somewhere between nothing and nice. This is all healthy, warm, sterile stuff coming out of you, after all. Amniotic fluid? It’s colorless, sterile, odorless fluid. Fresh blood can have an detectable odor, maybe like the smell of menstrual blood. But it shouldn’t smell funky. (As another student in my class remarked, “fresh meat has no smell.”) I’m sure a dog could smell it, but human noses aren’t quite as powerful. Even if  we could smell blood like a hound,  it would probably be an appealing smell, no? Not the smell of something rancid and wrong or sick. I’ve read elsewhere that even when there is a little bit of poop that comes out during the pushing phase, it’s cleaned up SO fast by midwives or doctors the smell doesn’t have time to register.

But this is kind of cool: apparently women can give off a certain smell right as they’re about to give birth/push. Sarah Vine, an Israeli doula writes, “There is a smell to birth, that hits towards the end of dilation, during intense labor, just before birth. It is a cross between mown hay and semen and dampness. It has a fresh, yet enclosed quality, and is pervasive.”

The Navelgazing Midwife writes, “Scent is another way to tell where a woman is in labor… When I smell that special scent, I know, for sure, she is in active labor and progressing…. I’ve tried to figure out where it comes from, but have determined it isn’t directly from the vagina. I mean, it isn’t the heavy, musky, oozie scent you get when you are between her legs or changing a Chux pad and, as far as I can tell, it isn’t the smell of ketones on a woman’s breath, that sweet smell that comes from not having eaten for hours on end. It seems to come more from her breasts, her chest area. It’s a ‘deep’ scent… not musky, necessarily, but primal and vaguely familiar …” Maybe birth smells like the opposite of death? The opposite of decay.

A doctor once told me that he can handle all the middle-of-the night deliveries because he gets an “oxytocin high.” (Oxytocin is the labor hormone, but also a hormone strongly associated with bonding, love and intimacy.) “You can smell it!” he only half-joked. Care-givers of laboring women do report catching a buzz from being around birth. Doulas I know say they come home from a birth and feel extra affectionate to their partners and children.

Maybe it’s something in the air?

Photo: Bianca Jae/Flickr

Megan Jordan on scent memory — what smells do you want your kids to associate with you?

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