The one moment all mothers cherish and remember forever is the time of their baby's first real smile (not just y'know gas...).
Dr Caspar Addyman has been studying the science of smiles and laughter amongst 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 most,’ explains Caspar. ‘We’ve learnt that smiling and laughing are not 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.’
If you're still waiting for this special moment with your little one, despite constantly making noises imitating animal sounds, here is everything you need to know about when their first smile will finally happen, and what you can expect from this very special developmental milestone.
In this article:
Do newborns smile?
Research has said babies are born smiling and developing babies appear to start to smile in the womb. Neonatal reflex smiling occurs from birth to one month of age but has no purpose. It's spontaneous and has no relevance to what they have seen.
When will my baby start smiling?
Every baby is different and they all hit milestones at different times, but once the time of the reflex smile passes, their first smile will come when they reach 3 months. At 3 months, their vision is improving a lot, and they will recognise who you are, and what you look like.
This smile is different from the reflex smile, as it's their response to something they've either seen or heard. It could be seeing your face or responding to your voice.
The meaning behind your baby's first smile
Whether you’re remembering your baby’s first-ever smile, or 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,’ says Caspar. ‘And they may happen far earlier than you think. Third trimester scans have 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,’ says Caspar. ‘So, the idea that your baby’s first smiles outside the womb are caused by wind is an old wives’ tale.
‘In those early weeks, the only forms of expression available to your baby are crying or smiling and laughter,’ he adds. ‘So think of laughter and smiles as the positive flipside 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!’
How to make your infant smile
If your moment hasn't come just yet and you want to know how to encourage your baby to smile, the key is to talk to them often and give lots of eye contact.
When they do smile, this is the way they are going to communicate with you now. You can also be a bit silly with them, as they tend to react more with this. Make funny faces and noises, and even try out 'peek-a-boo' and see what they do! The more you give, the more you'll get back but ultimately, your baby will flash a smile when they're ready.
After 6 months, your baby will also try an open mouth smile which follows with laughter. Your baby will be selective with who they share their smile with – the special people in their life. But, don't worry, your time is just around the corner!
Here are some more ways to encourage your baby smile.
Once your baby has cracked their first grin, they will continue to do so regularly, and it won't be long before you hear some squeals of excitement and other noises too.
Make sure you mark this momentous occasion, although you might not be lucky enough to catch the official first smile on camera, there's sure to be plenty more that follow so don't worry too much!
Smiling aids your baby's development
All those gorgeous smiles are critical to your baby’s on-going social and emotional development. ‘Babies learn about the world around them through interacting with other humans,’ explains Caspar, ‘and their smiles ensure they get as much interaction as possible with others.’ As your baby grows and develops, he starts to smile as an emotional response to other people. For example, think about the last game of peek-a-boo you played with your little one: ‘It’s likely that before the age of six months, your baby is smiling because he is actually surprised by your reappearing face,’ explains 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.’ 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. So, although he’s not yet able to express the sentiment in words, by this age he’s moved beyond a smile that signifies only, ‘I like this object’, to one that expresses a more complicated emotional life and level of comprehension: ‘I like this object and want to share that enjoyment with you.’
As he nears his first birthday, your baby is an expert smiler, and will have worked out for himself that smiling can help him get what he wants – yes, he’s mastered the ‘fake’ smile. ‘By the age of one year, babies have such a sophisticated understanding of the power and meaning of their smile that they’ll even smile for the camera!’ says Caspar.
Smiling will always play a large part in your child’s life, and he’ll smile, on average, 400 times a day. ‘It might be that your child is more alert and engaged when he is smiling,’ says Caspar, ‘as studies show that toddlers learn much better when they are laughing or smiling than when they are serious. So, smiling is a central component in your baby’s early development. We should all do it more!’
#mumtribe mums share memories of their baby's first smile
'He was about 8 weeks old and had just woken up,' Bella Edwards
Celia Stanworth, 'It was at about 7 weeks, as I was in the throws of deep PND. It gave me a reason to keep going.'
'It's such a long time ago. But it would of been me just smiling at her or pulling a face that got her smiling. Then I got it on camera afterwards!' Amanda McShane
'Around 6 weeks old. My husband was making faces and smiling at him.' Maria Masha