It wasn’t too long ago when child development experts and those in the medical community believed that “baby smiles” were not “real” smiles at all. Many professionals discounted them as the result of the baby passing wind, and others (including Charles Darwin) believed that it was only in response to other stimuli like a muscle twitch or a bowel movement.
Thanks to major medical advancements over the past 50 years, we now know that our baby’s first smiles actually take place well before they are even born (somewhere after the 20th week of gestation)! But are these smiles so-called “real” happy smiles?
The importance of smiles
Most parents have no problem smiling at their baby. It turns out that this may be built into our DNA.
Smiling at a baby has been shown to play a number of important roles in the health and well-being of both mum and baby:
- Smiling helps parents and babies bond and feel an attachment
- Smiling tells your baby that the world is safe and secure
- Smiling helps babies learn how to regulate their emotions
- Watching your reactions helps guide baby and learn more about the world
- Smiling reduces stress hormones for both parents and baby
Up to six weeks of age
Several researchers still believe that smiles are “reflexive” up until your baby is at least six weeks old. Reflexive smiles are shorter than a “real” smile and happen at random times (such as when your baby is tired or sleeping).
After six weeks of age
Expect the real smiles to external stimuli to start coming in any time between six and 12 weeks of age. These “real smiles” are responses to something baby sees or hears, like a parent’s face or a sibling’s voice.
Another difference between reflexive and “real” smiles is that real smiles are predictable. If your baby keeps smiling once you perform the same action more than twice, you can be sure it’s a real smile.
Laughter and giggles
Research has shown that babies as young as five months of age can have a sense of humour. For example, if mum puts baby’s favourite book on top of her head like a hat, you might get a squeal of delight out of your little one. If daddy tries to stuff his foot into baby’s shoe, expect peals of laughter.
Another interesting point researchers found was that seven-month-old babies start to gauge the reaction of others in the room once they begin laughing. If baby laughs and no one else in the room is laughing, there’s a good chance your baby will stop laughing, too.
Encouraging your little one to smile
There are a lot of things you can do to encourage smiles from your bub, like:
- Talk to them and give them time to respond (chat about your day and describe what you’re doing)
- Make eye contact with your baby frequently
- Be silly and make funny noises and faces
- Play games like peek-a-boo and blowing raspberries on their tummy
“Smile milestones” aren’t concrete
It’s important for parents not to worry too much if their babies aren’t flashing their cute pink gums and first teeth as soon as other babies may be. Most babies will start smiling in response to their surroundings by the three-month mark, but if they aren’t that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unhappy or that there is something wrong.
If you are at all concerned about the development of your little one, reach out to your child’s paediatrician for further advice.