WHEN YOU’RE SMIL­ING

You’ll love your baby’s grins even more when you re­alise what they re­veal about the ad­vances in his de­vel­op­ment

Mother & Baby (Australia) - - Happy Thoughts -

There’s noth­ing in the world that com­pares to the mo­ments when your baby gives you a big, gummy, heart­warm­ing smile. If you’re any­thing like us, you’ll go all gooey and have eyes for no-one else. The vol­ume of YouTube videos show­ing one-tooth smiles and drib­bly gig­gles re­veals how in­cred­i­bly com­pelling – ad­dic­tive, even – a baby’s smile is. Now, new re­search has re­vealed how your lit­tle one’s seem­ingly spon­ta­neous smiles could be telling you a whole lot more about his de­vel­op­ment than you might think.

For the past three years, Dr Cas­par Ad­dy­man from the Univer­sity of London has been study­ing the sci­ence of smiles and laugh­ter among chil­dren un­der two years of age. “We asked the real ex­perts when it comes to ba­bies – their par­ents – to fill out sur­veys fea­tur­ing a range of ques­tions on ev­ery­thing from what age their baby started smil­ing to what made them laugh the most,” Cas­par says. “We’ve learnt that smil­ing and laugh­ing aren’t just signs of con­tent­ment; what ba­bies laugh at, and how they laugh, tracks other cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ments. Smiles can help us com­pre­hend just how much a baby understands his world.”

EARLY START

Whether you’re re­mem­ber­ing your baby’s first smile or are still look­ing for­ward to that fire­work mo­ment when he breaks into his first beam­ing grin, you can dis­miss the idea that those early smiles are sim­ply fa­cial ex­pres­sions made in re­sponse to wind. “Your baby’s first smiles are likely to be his ear­li­est nat­u­ral ex­pres­sions of con­tent­ment,” Cas­par says. “And they may hap­pen far ear­lier than you think – third-trimester scans have even picked up ba­bies smil­ing in the womb.”

Smiles that gen­uinely re­flect pos­i­tive emo­tion are ac­ti­vated in­vol­un­tar­ily by the emo­tional cen­tre of the brain and in­volve the mus­cles around the cheeks and eyes, as well as the mouth. “The smiles cap­tured in the womb cer­tainly look like the real deal,” Cas­par says. “So the idea that your baby’s first smiles out­side the womb are caused by wind is an old wives’ tale.

“In the early weeks, the only forms of ex­pres­sion avail­able to your baby are cry­ing or smil­ing and laugh­ter,” he adds. “With that in mind, think of laugh­ter and smiles as the pos­i­tive flip-side to cry­ing. Just as cry­ing is a sig­nal from your baby to change something he’s not happy with, smil­ing or laugh­ing is a sig­nal to say, ‘Don’t change it – keep do­ing it!’”

IT’S CATCH­ING ON

Next time your baby gives you a great big grin, try not smil­ing back. Tough, right? That’s be­cause you’re fight­ing a nat­u­ral in­stinct. A 2008 study found that when a mother looks at her own smil­ing baby, the ar­eas of her brain as­so­ci­ated with re­ward are ac­ti­vated, re­leas­ing the feel-good chem­i­cal dopamine and giv­ing her a nat­u­ral high. Ba­bies with sad or

They even time their smiles to make you beam back as much as pos­si­ble.

neu­tral faces didn’t pro­voke the same ef­fect, nor did pho­tos of other peo­ple’s chil­dren. So it’s im­pos­si­ble for you to resist those su­per-cute smiles, which help form and strengthen the mother-baby bond.

“When you smile back at your baby and give him eye con­tact, that’s a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for him,” Cas­par says. “Your attention is ev­ery­thing your baby wants in the early stage of his life; it makes him feel se­cure and safe. And it doesn’t take your baby long to be­gin smil­ing in or­der to get your full attention.”

Re­search has shown ba­bies start grin­ning in­ten­tion­ally be­fore the age of four months, and they even time their smiles to make you beam back as much as pos­si­ble.

ONE SMART SMILER

All those gor­geous grins are crit­i­cal to your baby’s on­go­ing de­vel­op­ment. “Ba­bies learn about the world around them through in­ter­ac­tion with other hu­mans,” Cas­par says. “And their smiles en­sure they get as much in­ter­ac­tion with others as pos­si­ble.” As your baby grows and de­vel­ops, he starts to smile as an emo­tional re­sponse to other peo­ple.

Think about the last game of peek-a-boo you played with bub. “It’s likely that be­fore the age of six months, your baby is smil­ing be­cause he is ac­tu­ally sur­prised by your reap­pear­ing face,“says Cas­par. “But when he’s older and can pre­dict the out­come, his smiles are a sign that he is en­joy­ing the so­cial el­e­ment of the game.“Yep, he’s en­joy­ing your com­pany.

By the age of 10 months, your baby is likely to be able to trans­fer his smile from an ob­ject to a per­son. Although he’s not yet able to ex­press the sen­ti­ment in words, by this age he’s moved be­yond a smile that only sig­ni­fies, “I like this ob­ject.” In­stead it ex­presses a more com­pli­cated emo­tional life and level of com­pre­hen­sion, along the lines of, “I like this ob­ject and want to share that en­joy­ment with you.” As he nears his first birthday, your baby should have be­come an ex­pert smiler, and will have worked out for him­self that smil­ing can help him get what he wants; other­wise known as the ‘fake’ smile.

“By the age of one, ba­bies have such a so­phis­ti­cated un­der­stand­ing of the power and mean­ing of their smiles that they’ll even smile for the cam­era,“Cas­par says.

Smil­ing will al­ways play a large part in your child’s life; on av­er­age he’ll grin 400 times a day. “It might be that your child is more alert and en­gaged when he’s smil­ing,“Cas­par says. “Stud­ies show that tod­dlers learn much bet­ter when they’re laugh­ing or smil­ing than when they are se­ri­ous. Smil­ing is a cen­tral com­po­nent in your baby’s de­vel­op­ment. In fact, we should all do it more!“

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