Stumbling into Motherhood

Baby Mommy

Babies’ hair smells keenly of humanity. It makes people groan, small but deep–a kind of creaking in their gut as they inhale and say, “Hmmm.”

Babies smell of rusks, even if they don’t eat them. Tiny babies smell like kissing someone in a field; also of milk, and asparagus, and–it’s up to you really–pancakes cooked in the Frytex of your youth; baby lotion, even if they are wearing none; sunshine, even in the middle of winter; and so on. They smell of all lost things, now regained.

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Babies’ feet smell, bizarrely, of feet. It starts early.

Babies’ shit smells a little like ham going off. Also biscuits. Sometimes, if their tummy is upset, there is a whiff of fried egg. One day, much later, you turn from the nappy table and say, “Christ, that actually smells like shit.”

Babies finally smell like you and they smell like your partner. This is as it should be. This was the way they are made. But I wonder if they don’t just take our imprint on to their skin, which is to say, the imprint of the last person to hold them–the mother’s the father’s, the baby minder’s, the woman in the doctor’s waiting room who asks can she “have a go.” Some parents can smell a stranger off their baby as soon as they pick them up–I am speaking of quite normal parents here–they can smell musty old talc, and women who wear Obsession, and the baby minder’s car with its little bottle of aromatherapy oil, plugged into the place where the cigarette lighter used to go.

Perhaps babies are just olfactory blotting paper. They smell of the person who last minded them. They smell of You.

What do we do with babies? We inhale them, our face hovers over them, we hold them and keep a tiny, delicious distance between their skin and our own. We kiss them thoughtfully on the head, and we kiss them playfully in the fat, soft cushion under the chin. All day, we sniff them up and down. We do not lick them.



  1. What beautiful words! I can attest that every time I come home, I pick up each baby, hold them close to my cheek and breathe deeply. It’s like a drug. Once you inhale, you can’t get enough.

    1. Hi Kim, I remember those days. That lovely scent made everything right with the world. Love those babies, they grow up all too quickly.

  2. Just this morning, as I kissed my grown daughter, I marveled that her head smelled exactly as it did when she was a baby. My, what beautiful memories that smell recalled.

    1. Hi Shelly, I am truly envious. I just tried sniffing my teenage son’s hair and it had an aroma reminiscent of dirty sneakers, wet dog and hair mousse. You were very lucky to have a daughter!

  3. I firmly believe that smells awake some deep entrenched memories in our amygdala. Nothing can take me back to a specific day like a smell – it is like a time machine:) This is a beautiful article that brought me to tears as my girls are slowly spreading their wings and looking outwards (New Zealand? Norway? Help!!!) I still want to smell their hair:( Thank you, Anne Enright, for dragging me back to those days of sweet baby smells:)

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more Lana, my boys are entering their final years of college and Anne’s piece took me back to the days of babyhood and playing ticklish footie games with them. I love the idea of a “smell time machine,” even though it brings tears to our eyes.

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