When do babies smile?
At what age will your baby smile for the first time? How can you tell if it's a real smile or just a muscle reflex? And why do babies smile in their sleep? Our expert family GP has all the answers
In a nutshell
Generally, babies start to smile, as a genuine social reaction, at about 6 to 8 weeks old. You may notice your baby smiling before then but it's likely simply to be what's called a 'reflex smile'.
My baby smiles as a newborn. Is this a reflex smile?
Babies can smile – as in tuning up the corning of their mouth – as newborns, and even in the womb but this kind of smile is commonly called a reflex smile, as it doesn't happen in response to anything in particular and is nearly always short lived. You may notice, for example, that your baby smiles in their sleep.
At what age will my baby smile for real?
A 'real' smile is one where your baby is smiling to show pleasure in response to something they feel, hear, smell or see. Babies tend to start smiling in this way at around 6 to 8 weeks old.
From then, your baby will progress further on the smiling front as they realise that a smile is a form of communication: they smile at you; you smile in return. This is known as the social smile.
This is followed by the responsive smile, when you smile at your baby in a really big, obvious way and they then smile back at you.
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Your baby's smile-centred communication will continue to develop and, by about 3 months of age, your baby will smile in anticipation, when they see you coming or when they see they are about to be fed or have a bath.
How can I tell the difference between a real smile and a reflex smile?
A reflex smile is quick and doesn't seem to be in response to anything, unlike a real, social smile where your baby's face lights up and they are communicating with you. But as parents and caregivers we still get pleasure from a reflex smile and love to smile back.
How can I encourage my baby to smile?
Babies love looking at faces, so try to give your baby lots of eye contact and make your facial expressions big and noticeable. All of this encourages social smiling, as do gentle play and cuddles.
How does smiling help my baby's development?
Smiling, like crying, is an important form of communication for little babies and learning to smile, both socially and responsively, is a key part of your baby's social and emotional development. It also can help with bonding and with your baby's sense of self-esteem as they realise that they are making you happy – and you them.
What's the next social milestone after smiling?
There are lots of milestones in your baby's social and emotional development. After smiling, you may notice the beginning of cooing and gurgling before your baby starts to laugh.
Why does my baby smile in their sleep?
As we've seen above, very small babies often smile in their sleep but this is a reflex smile, and simply an indication that your baby's facial muscles are working normally.
When should I worry that my baby isn't smiling?
At your baby’s first check with your GP – usually when your baby is 6 to 8 weeks old – you will be asked whether your baby is smiling at you or not, as well as other related questions, such as whether your baby looks at you and focuses on your face.
If your baby isn't smiling at this point, your doctor may want to investigate a little more or may ask you to come back if your baby doesn't start smiling within a certain timeframe.
If your baby is not smiling by 3 months old, or if they stop smiling at you and their other carers, then you should discuss this with your GP.
Last reviewed: April 2023. Please note: this advice is not personalised or meant to replace individual advice given to you about your baby by your doctor or medical team.
About our expert Dr Philippa Kaye
Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in both NHS and private practice. She attended Downing College, Cambridge, then took medical studies at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s medical schools in London, training in paediatrics, gynaecology, care of the elderly, acute medicine, psychiatry and general practice. Dr Philippa has also written a number of books, including ones on child health, diabetes in childhood and adolescence. She is a mum of 3.
Pics: Getty Images
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