The secret life of babies

I thought I knew everything about my kid. I was wrong.

By Lisa Scanlon
February 6, 2011

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Our day-care providers wanted us to know that our daughter smelled funny. And not funny in the usual 10-month-old way – we were used to that. No, Anna smelled distinctly, overwhelmingly of maple syrup. “You must have fed her pancakes this morning, right?” they said. Actually, breakfast was squash-and-peach yogurt, a combination I never would have dreamed existed a year ago. They weren’t exaggerating. Picking Anna up was like standing downwind of an IHOP. We all shrugged and laughed. I figured worse things could happen than having a child who smells like Vermont.

That night, my husband and I gave our sweeter-than-usual child a bath and put her to bed smelling reassuringly like baby shampoo. Still, I couldn’t stop wondering about the syrup scent. I came up with a few plausible scenarios – maybe she’d smooched a waffle-eater? – but not knowing for sure worried me. This is one of the hard things about being parents who work full time. We get a diaper-by-diaper account of Anna’s day, but there’s still a lot we miss.

So, as I often do when I’m acting a little crazy, I turned to the Internet. I Googled “my baby smells like maple syrup” and, amazingly, thousands of Web citations came up. I read page after page about maple syrup urine disease, a rare disorder that, if left untreated, can cause brain injury, even death. My husband talked me down from the edge of panic, pointing out that Massachusetts screens for the disease at birth. But after more research, I found an even rarer late-onset variant. He insisted that was far-fetched.

Anna was her normal, chatty, baby-smelling self the next morning, Friday, and I managed to relax as I dropped her off at day care. I didn’t mention my research from the night before. I didn’t want to be that parent.

When I picked her up, I think they told me about her stellar afternoon nap and some space issues with another toddler. I’m not really sure because, bizarrely, she smelled like maple syrup again. All my fears came racing back.

I loaded Anna into the car and called our pediatrician’s office. One of the doctors called back right away, and I pulled over. He asked me to smell her diaper (inconclusive), then suggested that I could wait to bring her in until the office reopened on Monday. But, he added, if Anna seemed lethargic, it might not be a bad idea to take her to the emergency room. Just in case.

The next morning, Anna slept until 8:30 a.m. for the first time in her young life. Lethargy! We headed to the emergency room. The admitting nurse took notes on her computer. “Maple syrup smell? . . . I’m not seeing an entry for that in the database.” Two hours of testing on Anna followed. Her blood was drawn and her urine collected in an adhesive bag; she hated every second of it. The preliminary results came back normal, but we were told that if we were still concerned, our pediatrician could refer us to an endocrinologist the next week.

There was nothing left to do but wait, so I dropped Anna off at day care again on Monday. They were surprised that we had gone to the hospital, but they were glad everything seemed normal. I headed off to work.

An hour later, I got a call. I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the worst. “Call off the specialists,” one of the day-care providers said. “We know why she smells like maple syrup.” One of the morning employees had noticed Anna looking longingly at a box of cinnamon maple puffs and had been periodically slipping her a few of the sugary treats. Turns out Anna wasn’t starring in an episode of House. She was in Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

As new parents, we expected that we would know everything that’s going on in our daughter’s life. And we do know a lot. We get a detailed “Infant-gram” from day care – a rundown of all her ins, down to the last ounce of formula, and a full reckoning of all her, well, outs. But I’ve come to realize she’s not entirely knowable, even as things like the Infant-gram reinforce the illusion that she is. It’s as if Anna has a secret life – a secret life in which she eats maple puffs. And I’m learning to be OK with that.

After all, it’s only one of many mysteries. For example, why does my daughter say, furiously and with crystal-clear meaning, “Nein, nein, nein” instead of “No”? Is it some multilingual toy at day care? A post-nap screening of Inglourious Basterds? I may never know. But I’m not taking her to the emergency room over it.

Lisa Scanlon is a writer and editor who lives in Natick. Send comments to

(Illustration by Alex Nabaum)
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