Body wisdom: detecting birth by smell (part 2)

In the first part of this article, I described how, quite a few years ago, I discovered three student midwives in one of my lectures who all shared the experience of being able to detect a distinct smell just before a baby was about to be born and that wasn’t obviously related to the people or other substances in the room.

My co-authors, Karen Roberts, Julie Howard and Sue Waters, tried to describe the smell and speculate on what the smell might be about:

It’s neither pleasant nor unpleasant.  It is almost I would say as the head is coming through the pelvis … just prior to delivery … the birth is imminent.  Now I shall make more of a point of noting it and pinpointing exactly when I start smelling it.

To me, it’s a real feminine smell, but it’s not individual, it is the same smell for everybody.  And it’s not unpleasant, but then it’s not a nice perfume smell, it’s just a very feminine smell.

My experience is pretty much the same.  I would say that it is just before the vertex is visible that I smell it, because quite often [when I’m] with a midwife that likes to perform a vaginal examination if a woman is experiencing pressure, before I’ve done the VE I’ve smelt it then and I’ve thought, “I know what I’m going to find”.  But on the very quick deliveries … the last two I attended we’ve only been in the room 10 minutes … One woman came in wanting waterbirth and I knew we weren’t even going to have time to get the plug in, and I was right, because of this smell.  And the last one as well … the lady had come over 4 centimetres dilated from the antenatal ward and by the time we got in the room she was taking her underwear off and I could smell it, and the baby was delivered within 9 minutes. 

It’s not unpleasant but it’s not nice … it’s just a very strong smell, which is why I’m so surprised when other people have said they don’t smell it, because you know it, you know the smell.  And it is the same for every woman.

I’m pretty convinced that there’s something in it, and I don’t know what it is, I’ll be fascinated to find out if other midwives can smell it too. 


It struck me that being able to smell when birth is imminent might be a very useful tool for a midwife’s intuitive birth kit. Not only could it provide another non-invasive way of assessing a woman’s progress in labour, but it could be a useful practical tool as well, as one of my colleagues described:

By going by the smell, I prepare myself by opening the delivery pack and getting on a pair of gloves … if the one time it turns out it doesn’t happen, I haven’t done any harm by it, but it’s a tool that I’ve been using to prepare myself… I’ve started to use it and say to the midwife … sometimes I know what I’m going to find if the midwife asks me to do a VE but sometimes there’s been no need for a VE.  So far there’s something in it…


All sorts of questions are raised by the experiences discussed here. Is this ability a specialist role, or will we one day be teaching student midwives to smell when birth is imminent in the way that we now teach the assessment of full dilation? Perhaps experienced midwives do detect the smell on a subconscious level, but without a conscious awareness of this; there does seem to be something that generally enables us to know when birth is imminent and get our gloves on in time.

On a wider level, if this experience is in any way indicative of the kinds of knowledge which midwives hold, then it provides another reason for us to work out how we can focus less on rationalist knowledge, and more on exploring the ways in which women learn and know. Each of these women had felt she was alone in having this experience; how many of us might have had similar experiences as students and then dismissed them over time? We might have forgotten abilities, in the same way that creativity and imagination can sometimes be socialised out of young children. Perhaps, the next time you attend a birth, and you think the baby is on her way, you might remember to pause and see what you can smell…


We create safe spaces for midwives, students and birth folk to get updated on the evidence AND consider other ways of knowing. We invite you to take a look at our online courses  and see Sara’s upcoming live events page too 🙂


A version of this article was first published as Wickham S, Roberts K, Howard J and Waters S (2004). Body wisdom: detecting birth by smell. TPM 7(1):30-31.
Photo by Ruslan Zh on Unsplash

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