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Does Your Child Like STINKY Smells? Here’s Why and What To Do!

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Kids Likes Stinky Smells

When I get questions at, I ask the experts.  Lindsey Biel, OTR/L kindly answered this mom’s question about her son’s stinky smells preferences.

Why does my child like to smell gross things?  Dirty socks?  Rotten Eggs? Diapers?  The worse the smell, the more he seems to like it.  Help!

Some kids with sensory challenges like to smell everything and the stronger the smell the better. Why? It’s hard to say without knowing your child, but my guess is that he is not getting accurate sensory input from the sensory systems we typically use to explore the environment so he is gaining and enjoying the intense input that comes through his nostrils.

The olfactory (smell) system is a primitive sense that alerts us to danger in the environment such as spoiled food and smoke. Throughout the day, odor molecules travel along free-flowing air currents into the nose.  When we want to smell more of something, we sniff to pull more of these molecules into our nasal cavities where chemical receptors send electrical signals to the brain.  Unlike all other sensory information, only the olfactory sends messages directly to the limbic system, instantaneously triggering emotions and memories.

Many kids, teens and adults are hypersenstitive to smells that most of us find unremarkable.  Because everything and everyone has an odor, smell oversensitivity can keep a person in a state of high alert and make everyday life stink.

Other people are undersensitive to smell. Because they may not notice strong smells such as smoke, safety may be an issue.

Some kids engage in sensory seeking, sniffing objects and people as a means of exploration or self-stimulation. A child may smell toys, furniture, animals, and classmates in order to pick up scents more strongly. This is seen most often in children with cognitive disabilities or autism. In rare cases, hyposmia or anosmia–reduced or total inability to perceive smell–may occur due to zinc deficiency, cranial nerve injury, respiratory infection, head trauma or other conditions.

Sensory Smart Smell Strategies

As with all things sensory, the first step is to understand the person’s experiences so you can predict difficult situations and take proactive steps.

Odors consist of chemicals that are blown into the nostrils by air currents and then land on hairy olfactory receptors. When enough molecules have landed, an chemical signal is generated. You can “pre-treat” smell receptors with more socially acceptable odors. You might start by rubbing some Vicks Vap-O-Rub under the nostrils to give your son the intense smell input he seems to crave.

When I work with a person with smell challenges, I present an assortment of high-quality essential oils in a room with good ventilation. I play soothing music and make sure the lighting is comfortable. I put 1-2 drops of essential oil on a cotton ball and the person inhales. If he or she hates the smell, I place the cotton ball inside a sealed bag, throw it out in a different room, and air out the room using a fan. Typical choices are vanilla, sweet orange, rosemary, eucalyptus, and rose. The person selects his or her favorite essential oil and then gets a bottle. Unless specially formulated for skin you’ll need to dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil such as sweet almond oil before applying it on the skin.

Before going out and about the person (or a caregiver) can place a drop or two on a handkerchief or terrycloth wristband to provide ongoing smell input which may reduce cravings. There are also essential oil lockets that can be worn and room diffusers you can look into. Young Living Oils and DoTerra (both online) offer especially high-quality formulations to consider. You’ll want to avoid synthetic oils you’ll find at chain stores in shopping malls.

I hope this helps you and your son!

Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, is co-author of the bestselling Raising a Sensory Smart Child. Her latest book is Sensory Processing Challenges: Effective Clinical Work with Kids & Teens. She is a pediatric occupational therapist with a private practice in New York City where she evaluates and treats children and adolescents with sensory processing issues, developmental delays, autism and other challenges. Visit her websites at and for free webinars, articles, and other practical information.
Since I love Lindsey’s books, I’m listing them here for your convenience.  Thank you Lindsey!!!  Jackie
Sensory Processing Challenges: Effective Clinical Work with Kids & Teens (Norton Professional Book)  Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with SensoryProcessing Issues