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
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.”
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!“