Your body goes through a lot of changes after having a baby, but pungent body odor might not have been one that you expected. If you’ve been worried about your scent, you’re not alone. Although unpleasant, body odor may play an important role in bonding with your baby.
Newborns have limited hearing and eyesight but a great sense of smell. In fact, your baby’s olfactory (smelling) receptors are fully formed by 10 weeks gestation! Babies develop a sense of smell for their mom in the womb from swallowing amniotic fluid, which smells similar to their mother’s breast milk.
Since babies can’t see very well, the mother’s scent—a mix of pheromones, breastmilk, and stinky armpit B.O.—helps the baby recognize its mother’s presence. Babies turn towards the smell, which positions the head towards the breasts for nursing. How cool is that?
But it still doesn’t mean you have to like the way you smell. To understand how to keep the stench under control, let’s first understand what’s to blame.
Why do I stink? (aka "the science of stink")
During pregnancy, your body increases its blood volume by 160% to support the placenta and your baby's circulation—that’s up to 10 lbs of extra fluid! Sweating is one of the main ways your body flushes it all out (along with peeing). In fact, almost one-third of postpartum moms experience hot flashes and night sweats, which typically peak around two weeks postpartum.
Increased sweating may sound like a good reason for increased body odor, but that’s not the whole story. Surprisingly, sweat is odorless.
We have two types of sweat glands in our body: eccrine and apocrine. Eccrine glands are all over our body and produce lightweight sweat. Apocrine glands are concentrated in hairy areas, such as the scalp, armpits, areola, and groin. Instead of opening up to the surface of the skin, apocrine glands empty into the hair follicle. They also produce heavier, fat-laden sweat.
When the sweat reaches the skin, it starts to interact with the skin microbiome: the collective of bacteria, yeast, fungi, and other microorganisms that live on our skin. The bacteria will start to consume (metabolize) the sweat and the bi-product is rather stinky. Armpits maintain a moist and warm environment where bacteria thrive and increased postpartum sweat production facilitates further growth.
If you feel like your living room smells like a high school gym, you can thank a drastic drop in estrogen. Lower estrogen levels result in an altered estrogen/testosterone ratio. Testosterone, which is naturally produced in the ovaries, leads to more bacteria in the sweat which produces a stronger smell. This is also why your body odor is stronger when on your period and during menopause.
Heightened sense of smell
Not only is your body more smelly, but your ability to smell yourself increases. Prolactin, the hormone that stimulates milk production, also creates more brain connections, which heightens your sense of smell. This upgrade starts in pregnancy and reaches its peak postpartum.
What can I do to stink less?
While this seems obvious, finding time to shower can feel totally impossible with a little one. Washing your body with soap and water is the best way to get rid of the bacteria that cause body odor. If you don’t have time for a full rinse using a warm washcloth or body wipes to clean your underarms, chest or groin can be just as helpful.
Water is not only essential for milk production and vaginal lubrication but it also helps to dilute bodily secretions. Dehydration leads to a stronger and more concentrated scent.
Since apocrine glands empty into hair follicles, shaving your armpit hair can help mitigate the odor. This 2015 study showed that removing armpit hair prior to washing was significantly better at eliminating body odor than just washing the pits.
Eat your veggies
The fiber in veggies lowers the risk of constipation. If you can’t regularly empty your bowels, your body will have to excrete the toxins through your skin. This extra bacteria will mix with your sweat and lead to worse B.O. Veggies have also been shown to lead to a more attractive body odor, as found in this strange study where men’s sweaty shirts were sniffed and ranked in order of pleasantness by some very brave women.
It’s recommended that nursing mothers use an all-natural deodorant to decrease the baby’s exposure to harsh chemical and endocrine (hormone) disruptors. Strong fragrances should also be avoided as they may confuse your baby. Some products work by masking the B.O. smell while others target the bacteria itself. Here are some we recommend.