Benefits of Touch and Smell

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  • Skin-to-Skin: Studies have shown that mothers and infants should be together, without barriers between the mother’s skin and the infant’s skin. Infants in the NICU who engage in Skin-to-Skin contact, have been shown to go home sooner, and when engaging in skin-to-skin contact babies become more relaxed, less agitated, their temperature, heart, and respiration rates stabilize 1. Also, when an infant is placed in an isolette, he/she is exposed to bacteria different from his/her own mother’s.  When the mother holds her infant skin-to-skin, the mother is exposed to the bacteria that infant has been exposed to. She then begins to produce antibodies, which can be found in her breast milk, which will help protect her baby 2.
  • Healing: Touch unfolds through an impactful, expressive, reciprocity between the toucher and the touched. For the ill person this can serve to reestablish human connection and facilitate healing changes at the prelinguistic level. The clinical efficacy of touch is also dependent upon the patient’s active receptivity 3.
  • Pet Therapy: Pet owners had fewer minor health problems (Friedmann, 1990, Serpel, 1990). Pet owners have better psychological well-being (Serperl., 1990). Pets decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation (Kidd, 1994). Pets are major sources of support and increase the perception of the ability to cope (Siegel, 1999, Carmack, 1991). Pet owners have better physical health due to exercise with their pets (Serpel, 1990).


  • Memory and smell: A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people's moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling, it's sometimes called the "emotional brain," smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously 4.
  • The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren't for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory -- associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the pool or lilies with a funeral. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood. Chlorine might call up a specific pool-related memory or simply make you feel content. Lilies might agitate you without your knowing why. This is part of the reason why not everyone likes the same smells 5.
  • Because we encounter most new odors in our youth, smells often call up childhood memories. But we actually begin making associations between smell and emotion before we're even born. Infants who were exposed to alcohol, cigarette smoke or garlic in the womb show a preference for the smells. To them, the smells that might upset other babies seem normal or even comforting 6.
  • Rachel Herz, Ph.D., a psychologist at Brown University, has found that odor can even reinforce the negative feelings associated with failure. "Smell doesn't necessarily help you remember," Herz says. Instead, it seems to affect how you remember. "It certainly can intensify your feelings about a certain event," she says.
  • Lavender and relaxation:  Psychologists at Wesleyan University asked 31 men and women to sniff lavender essential oil one night--and then distilled water the next--for four 2-minute periods just before bedtime. The researchers monitored their sleep cycles with brain scans. On the night they whiffed the herb, subjects slept more soundly; they also felt more energetic the next morning. The researchers found that lavender increased slow-wave sleep, the very deep slumber in which the heartbeat slows and muscles relax. During this phase, the brain is thought to organize memory, as well.
    • In folklore, pillows were filled with lavender flowers to help restless people fall sleep. Scientific evidence suggests that aromatherapy with lavender may slow the activity of the nervous system, improve sleep quality, promote relaxation, and lift mood in people suffering from sleep disorders. Lavender flowers have also been approved in Germany as a tea for insomnia, restlessness, and nervous stomach irritations 7.
    • There are no known scientific reports of interactions between lavender and conventional medications. However, because lavender promotes relaxation, it may make the effects of central nervous depressants stronger. These drugs include narcotics such as morphine or oxycodone (OxyContin) for pain, and sedative and anti-anxiety agents such as lorazepam (Ativan), diazepam (Valium), and alprazolam (Xanax). Ask your doctor before using lavender with these and other sedatives.

Written by Adriana Nevado


1 Feldman & Eidelman, 2003a; Gray, Watt & Blass, 2000
2 NICU-ProMoms for Premies Treatment Manual, 2011
3 “The Touch That Heals: The Uses and Meanings of Touch in the Clinical Encounter” Drew Leder, M.D.,  Ph.D., & Mitchell W. Krucoff, M.D. DOI: 10.1089/acm.2007.0717
7 Gyllenhaal, C., et al., (2000). Efficacy and safety of herbal stimulants and sedatives in sleep disorders. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2000;4(2):1-24.