Surprise! Babies smile earlier than we think

And playing Peekaboo can help us understand how their brain develops

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Babies smile and laugh much earlier than previously thought, say UK researchers. And making them laugh, by pulling funny faces or playing games like Peekaboo, can help us track what they understand about the world around them. 

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“Laughter and smiles start incredibly early, just like tears,” says Dr Caspar Addyman, a laughter expert at Birkbeck College in London, who has surveyed 700 parents from around the world.

In fact, he reckons babies first smile in response to pleasant feelings as early as one month old – and that those who say these early smiles are nothing but wind are much mistaken. 

Then, at two to four months old, social smiles develop, followed, at about three to six months, by proper laughter.

Dr Addyman believes this laughter can really help us work out what’s going on in a baby’s head. “You can’t laugh at something until you get the joke,” he says, “so what babies laugh at really tells us about their understanding of the world.

As part of his ongoing Baby Laughter Project, Dr Addyman is studying babies from the age of six months as they play Peekaboo. “Peekaboo is all the best things,” he says. “It’s Mummy reappearing, but it’s also about shared communication. You can’t help but smile back and laugh when a baby starts laughing with you, which is really valuable for them in developing their ability to interact with other people.”

The five key stages of baby-laughter development:

  • 1-3 months: first smile
  • 2-4 months: social smiling
  • 3-6 months: first laugh
  • 4-6 months: laughter, when tickled
  • 6-8 months: Games such as Peekaboo become funny (because babies now understand that things that disappear can come back) 

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