Though parents eagerly await all of baby’s important milestones, there’s nothing quite like that first smile. So, when do babies smile? It can be difficult to tell if that hint of a smirk is due to gas or from happiness.
Read on to learn when do babies smile, plus:
- The difference between a reflexive smile and a social smile
- The different types of smiles babies make
- Why smiling is so important for baby’s development
- How to make baby smile
- Why babies smile in their sleep
- And what to do if baby isn’t smiling after 2 months
How Early Can Baby Smile?
So, when do babies smile? If you guessed in the womb, you’d be right! Some moms swear baby is flashing a smile in her ultrasound picture, and no, they’re not imagining it—experts say babies learn to smile while still in utero, at about 26 weeks.
“What’s behind the smile, of course, I can’t say, but the corners turn up and the cheeks bulge … I think it must be some indication of contentment in a stress-free environment.” — Stuart Campbell, an obstetrician in Scotland
When Do Babies Smile on Purpose?
So do babies smile right from birth? Sort of. There’s a difference between a reflexive smile (an unconscious upturn of the mouth) and a social smile (knowingly engaging with someone).
Some newborns appear to smile, particularly in their sleep or after passing gas. These fleeting grins are most often a reflex that can be attributed to a physical reaction or some other internal signal. Babies don’t actually learn how to smile as an intended response until they are about 2-3 months old. (source)
Does Baby’s Smile Mean He/She Is Happy?
Once baby starts smiling intentionally, you might wonder if he/she is trying to tell you something with that toothless grin. Research suggests that a baby’s smile has more to do with developing communication skills and less about expressing an emotional state. What does that mean exactly? Baby’s first smile doesn’t necessarily mean he/she is happy in that moment. Instead, baby is learning about positive interactions.
“I really think that babies are learning what joy is by sharing it with someone else.” — Daniel Messinger, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami
Another study supports that theory, showing that babies smile to make the person they interact with smile in return. In other words, baby is likely copying your facial expressions to get a reaction from you.
“Babies are very goal-oriented. By the time infants reach 4 months of age, both mothers and infants time their smiles in a purposeful, goal-oriented manner.” (source)
Researchers say these social smiles are important for long-term development because of a thing called mirror neurons, a type of brain cell that fires when two people perform the same action. During those first few months, an infant’s mirror neurons help them learn facial expressions; later they aid in language development and acquiring other social habits. (source)
What Does Baby’s Smile Mean?
Sometimes baby gives you a big wide smile, other times all you get is a little smirk. Researchers think there is a reason for the difference: Once baby is about 6 months old, he starts to learn the feelings associated with smiling and the intensity of his smile communicates different emotions. Here, the four types of smiles babies display:
- Simple: lip corner retraction only
- Duchenne: simple, plus cheek raising
- Play: simple, plus jaw drop
- Duplay: simple, plus cheek raise and jaw drop
Simple smiles are similar to a smirk—baby might seem hesitant to smile. Duchenne smiles happen most often when baby is focused on an action or a person (like mom tickling her), and play and duplay smiles reflect varying degrees of enjoyment and playfulness.
But Baby Still Has More to Learn…
Smiling seems like such a simple thing, but those heartwarming first smiles are just the beginning for baby. Around 8 months, babies develop a skill called anticipatory smiling—baby is learning to communicate a positive feeling about an object to another person.
Whether used to indicate (“This toy is funny!”) or to confirm (“Isn’t this toy funny?”), anticipatory smiles suggest a new social awareness… Anticipatory smiling provides an interactive structure in which infants can learn that experiences can be shared with others. — source
Why It’s So Important to Smile at Baby
It sounds silly, right? Of course you’re smiling at your baby! Once your baby starts to smile, chances are you’re going to do your best to get her to do it over and over again—and that’s exactly what you should be doing.
When baby smiles, a parent’s positive reinforcement lets them know that her feelings are important and may ultimately influence self-esteem. Another study indicates smiling, along with eye contact, helps an infant develop empathy. It all makes sense, too. Young babies do not yet understand language, they rely solely on nonverbal cues to learn about the world around them.
How to Make Babies Smile
If you want to get baby to smile, try this first:
- Make sure baby isn’t hungry or sleepy, as he will be in a better mood if he’s fed and rested.
- Make sure you’re within 8 to 12 inches of their face. (During the first few months—baby’s eyesight is still rapidly developing. That can make it hard for baby to distinguish shapes and colors, including your face when it’s too far away.)
Once that criteria has been met, play games and make silly faces—you may need to experiment to see what your baby responds to. Here are some fun ways to play with a newborn and, hopefully, make baby smile:
- Sing songs to them, incorporating hand movements or silly noises, like the animal noises in “Old MacDonald”
- Play simple games like peek-a-boo or “This Little Piggie”
- Gently tickle baby or blow raspberries on his belly
- Clap baby’s hands together or wiggle her feet and legs around
- Make funny sounds by popping your lips or clicking your tongue
- Make silly faces, such as sticking out your tongue or wiggling your nose
- Boop baby’s nose with a soft toy or stuffed animal
- Dance to upbeat music
- Put on a sock puppet show, or even just use your hands and a silly voice
Don’t worry if baby isn’t smiling regularly or only smiles at mom or dad. It can take a while for baby to figure out how to respond to social cues or to warm up to others. Remember: Baby is still adjusting to this big, loud, and bright world.
Why Does My Baby Smile in His Sleep?
Sleep smiles are some of the most precious moments mom and dad can observe, but why is baby smiling while snoozing? Are they reacting to a good dream or thought?
While the exact reason baby smiles while he/she is asleep may remain unknown, we do know that these smiles—along with grunts, grimaces, eyelid fluttering, sucking or other twitches—are part of a light sleep called active sleep, or rapid-eye movement sleep (REM).
Both babies and adults experience REM and make noises and facial expressions during sleep, but babies’ sleep cycles are shorter than adults’ cycles, lasting about 45 to 60 minutes. So you are likely to see facial expressions, including baby smiles, when your baby is re-entering this light, active sleep. (Source)
When to Talk to Your Pediatrician
Is your baby elusive with his/her smiles? As parents we want to see those smiles all the time—they provide positive reinforcement that baby is happy and healthy.
If your baby is 2 months old and you’re still asking yourself when do babies smile, you shouldn’t worry too much. Like adults, babies vary from person to person. Some babies are naturally more inclined to smile, while others may be more serious.
Your pediatrician will ask you whether baby has started to smile socially at her 2 month well visit. But remember: Babies hit milestones at different times, and that’s okay. If baby hasn’t started to smile reactively by about 3 months, your pediatrician may need to rule out any underlying conditions like an eye problem. In rare cases, the lack of a social smile could be an early warning sign for a more serious condition like Autism.
You know your baby best. Listen to your gut, and talk to your doctor if baby isn’t displaying signs of social smiles yet or if you have any concerns.
How About You?
When do babies smile in your household, mama? Share with us in the comments below!