Have you ever had to cancel a dinner date or miss an important meeting because your toddler pitched such a fit when you tried to leave the house that there was no other way to soothe him than to stay home?
Separation anxiety is very common among young children and is typically at its peak between 18 and 24 months of age. When it is severe, a child's distress at his parent's departure can lead to missing critical appointments and can make parents feel angry and guilty. If you can relate to this experience, I'm sure you've longed for something that could potentially substitute for you — typically Mommy — and create the feeling of Mommy without you actually being there.
A few years ago, I had the idea to develop a garment that could be used to soothe babies and young children who were distraught by their mother's, or primary care-giver's, departure. The garment would be a soft, plush, cotton shirt that the mother would wear for several hours in direct contact with her skin and that would then transform into a blanket to swaddle or otherwise be nestled with her child when she was gone. The garment would be cut and attractively fashioned in such a way that the two permutations were easily and quickly reversible. I called this invention "The Mommy Scented Convertible Cover."
I spoke to my patent lawyer about this idea, and though she thought it was a bit offbeat, she didn't dismiss it entirely. To both of our surprise, however, after searching through the existent patent files, she discovered that such an invention already existed! In fact, it had been developed by a nurse in Minnesota several years before.
Regina Sullivan and Paul Toubas from the University of Oklahoma studied newborns on a maternity ward separated from their mothers for their responses to the body-odor of "Mommy." At the time of testing, the infants were either: (1) calmly awake, (2) crying, or (3) sleeping. They were then presented with either: (a) the hospital gown their own mother had just been wearing, (b) the gown that a mother of another newborn in the maternity ward had been wearing, (c) a clean gown-no one had been wearing, or (d) nothing.
Sullivan and Toubas saw that when crying infants were exposed to the gown that their own mother had recently worn they stopped crying. Calmly awake babies also showed extra interest and seemed to be happier when exposed specifically to the gown that smelled like their own mother.
The lightbulb I had for the "The Mommy Scented Convertible Cover" came from knowing about Regina Sullivan's research and the potency of emotional learning with odors. Mommy scent is soothing because the emotions associated with Mama become attached to her scent such that her scent acts as an emotional proxy for Mama herself.
A keen observer on a maternity ward would quickly recognize the amazing succor of Mommy's smell. The nurse who figured this out before me must have known firsthand what soothing effects Mommy's scent can have on a distressed infant. The next time you think you'll have a distressing interaction with your toddler before a departure, try gently giving her your recently worn T-shirt or nightgown first and then slip out.
Rachel Herz is the author of The Scent of Desire and on the faculty at Brown University.
Sullivan, R.M. & Toubas, P. (1998). Clinical usefulness of maternal odor in newborns: soothing and feeding preparatory responses. Biology of the Neonate, 74, 402-408.