A couple of common questions new parents ask are: “When do babies smile?” and “My baby seems to be smiling already, is that normal?”
And there is no doubt that there is nothing more delightful to a parent than their baby’s first smile. It makes all the hard work and sleepless nights melt away into insignificance when you get that first smile from your little one that says... ‘I know you, I see you and I love you’.
However, there’s a few things we need to clear up about your baby’s first smile…
So let’s get right down into it!
So When Do Babies Smile?
While most babies will start to respond to you with a genuine smile in response to a social interaction between 6 - 12 weeks, however you may think you have seen your baby smile before this...
Some babies will socially smile as early as 4 weeks but a smile earlier than this is usually due to them passing wind or a reflex response to feeling comfy or happy. This is known as a reflex smile.
It is thought that babies smile in the womb and that premature babies reflex-smile more often than full term babies.
Reflex smile vs Real Smile
The main difference between a reflex smile and real smile is the stimulus that causes it.
In the context of your baby’s development, reflex smiles are a random and physical response, compared to a real smile which is a social response.
Reflex smiling, however, can be true smiling in as much that it is a sign your baby is happy and experiencing something pleasurable, feeling content and comfy.
These smiles can also be a sign that your baby has wind and although this may look like a smile it is really just a facial contortion in response to feeling some discomfort.
Reflex smiles are also practice for the big event and your baby will experiment by making lots of facial expressions as they explore how their mouth can move.
Babies under the age of 6 weeks do not have the developmental or physical ability to consciously smile in response to feeling happy or content.
That first social smile is a different thing altogether and involves more than just their smile. The first real smile coincides with your baby reaching other important developmental milestones such as now being able to focus more clearly on faces and objects.
When your baby first smiles at you socially, their whole face lights up.This is because the first proper smile is combined with your baby’s ability to see you clearly and show real delight in seeing and hearing the voice of someone special.
Why do newborns smile when they pass wind?
A newborn baby may look like they are smiling when they pass wind but...
The truth is... it's a facial response to feeling discomfort or relief.
This is not a true smile in as much as a newborn does not have adequate brain development or social skills to associate a smile with a feeling of happiness or contentment and in the case of passing wind, this would be described as more of a grimace.
Whether it looks like a smile or not, this facial response may be an indication that your baby needs to be winded or have their nappy changed so it is still a signal that you can respond to.
“For the first 6 weeks you'll be getting gas grins only im afraid!
- Teething to Tantrums -
Why do newborns smile in their sleep?
The same can be said of smiles seen when your newborn baby is asleep. These smiles in the early weeks of life are also reflex smiles, which can be caused by wind but there are other reasons too.
During your baby’s development in the early weeks smiling in their sleep is a subconscious response from their brains that usually occurs during REM sleep.
While we are not able to know what newborns dream about or to what extent there is some emerging evidence that these early smiles during newborn sleep may indicate a subconscious response to the processing of developing emotions they have experienced while awake.
When do babies smile socially for the first time?
Your baby’s first social smile will happen usually between the age of 6-12 weeks. This is the first major milestone that opens the door to your baby’s social development.
All the sleepless nights and the exhaustion of the early weeks of parenting will be worth it, when your little one responds to your voice and the sound of your voice with that wondrous first smile.
How your baby learns to smile
Babies start smiling when their brains have developed to the point that they can focus on you, make eye contact and react to the emotional response and feelings they experience when you smile at them and acknowledge your reaction to their first social smile.
There are things you can do to help with the development of this emotional and social connection and there are signals for you to look out for to know that you baby is ready for this important and joyful milestone.
“It will make all the hard work and sleepless nights melt away when you get that first smile.”
- Teething to Tantrums -
How to encourage your baby to smile
As your baby’s eyesight improves and they begin to focus more clearly on your face they will start to respond to your facial expressions and the sound of your voice with their first real smiles.
The best way to encourage your baby to start smiling is to smile and talk back to them. Make frequent eye contact and get silly. Babies like funny faces and silly sounds, so blow raspberries and play peek a boo too.
Always give your baby time to respond to your social interactions so take things slowly.
Talk to them with your face within 30cm from theirs so they can focus on you then smile and pause. When they are looking closely at you and making eye contact they are more likely to reward you with their first real smile for the first time.
Don’t get too carried away as little babies can only take this form of stimulation in small doses. It is best to play with your baby when they are rested and relaxed.
If they are ready for play, then you are more likely to get a response.
BUT... if they start to look away, then you know they have had too much and are ready for a rest.
For more advice about playing with a newborn, be sure to check out this post!
Once they form their first real smile they will do so again and again as they will enjoy seeing your eyes light up and the joy on your face will be a huge incentive for them to continue smiling back at you.
How smiling helps your baby’s development
When your baby smiles at you directly for the first time, it is an indication that their eyesight has reached an important developmental milestone.
Now that they can focus on your face and other objects, a whole new world will open up and they will begin to respond to the world and people around them in a new and exciting way.
Your baby’s nervous system has now progressed to the point where they no longer reflex smile but smile in an emotional response to you and they realise they can connect with others socially and emotionally.
Your baby’s social smile is the first step on their road to emotional development and the honing of their communication skills. They will use it to show happiness, joy, excitement and pleasure.
Your response to your baby’s smile is also important, as your very apparent joyous response boosts their self esteem and makes them feel loved.
They will love the response they get from a smile and will do it again and again.
Of course it goes without saying that smiling at your baby and your baby smiling at you is a strong bonding experience for you both, so the more smiles the better.
“Your baby's social smile is the first step on their road to emotional development.”
- Teething to Tantrums -
What if my baby isn’t smiling yet?
If your baby is not smiling by 3 months old there is no need to worry.
As I always say... each baby is an individual and some do not socially smile until they are 4 months old.
All babies have different personalities so they will start to smile at slightly different ages.
If your baby is suffering from colic or is a particularly fussy baby, they may take longer to smile and some babies may be concentrating on other developmental progressions such as coordinating their hand movements.
There is also the possibility that your baby is just not a smiler. (Yes, it does happen!)
By nature, some babies are more smiley than others. They may be more vocal instead and start cooing in response to you talking and smiling at them.
If your baby appears to be generally engaged and is making eye contact and making sounds and using vigorous movements, then that first special smile will eventually appear.
If you are concerned at any point that your baby is not developing socially, please consult a pediatrician who will assess your baby’s overall development.
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