Your baby's smile: what can it tell you about his development?
Did you know that in Italian, a newborn baby's smile is known as 'sognando gli angeli', or 'dreaming of angels'? Find out more about the very interesting topic of a baby's smile and what it can tell you.
Those adorable first baby smiles are so much more than just cute. Starting from birth almost, your little angel’s sweet smiles can give you a peek into his or her emotional and social development, say scientists.
And what is perhaps even more important is how you react to those sweet smiles, because this “can help program babies’ brains for a lifetime of social interactions.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, attempts to decipher babies’ smiles are not new and even date as far back as Darwin’s time.
Now, modern efforts see researchers using heart monitors, brain scans and the observation of recorded interaction, and have revealed amazing “cognitive and emotional sensitivities in very young infants.”
Researchers unveiling baby emotions through smiles
Scientists at the University of California recently programmed a baby-like robot to smile at volunteers in the same way a four-month-old babies smile at their mums.
Next, using mathematical calculations, “they concluded that while the mothers timed their smiles to maximize mutual smiling, the infants, knowingly or not, smiled just enough to make their mothers smile.”
Meanwhile, developmental psychologists at Johnson State College in the USA hypothesised that young babies would not be able to pick up on something that is humorous unless their parents were laughing too.
But what they actually observed was different to their hypothesis. They noted that five-month-old babies will laugh at a funny sight — such as a person balancing a book on his head — even if no one else was laughing.
1. Spontaneous smiles or “dreaming of angels”
Mum wait eagerly to see that first darling little newborn smile. These smiles, which occur in newborns mostly when they are sleepy or asleep, are known as spontaneous smiles because they are “seemingly unconnected to any outside stimulus.
It is still not known what causes these fleeting smiles. As Dr. Messinger, professor of psychology at University of Miami jokingly says, “We ask them and they don’t tell us.”
And while some may tell you that these first smiles are caused by gas, researchers have ruled this out as these early smiles seem unaffected by feedings.
It’s more likely that newborn smiles come from a primitive part of the brain and this impulse to smile is not yet connected to systems of cognition or emotion.
These beautiful first smiles are appropriately known in Italian as sognando gli angeli, or “dreaming of angels”.
2. Social smiles
When your baby is around six to eight weeks old, he or she will start smiling in response to external stimuli, such as hearing your voice and seeing your face.
Your baby will smile less when alone and more when people are around, especially favourites like mum, dad and siblings.
You only have to think of the “still face” experiment, where little ones aged three months and older will become upset if an adult who has been smiling at them suddenly stops.
Also at around the same age, babies who are smiling and gazing at a parent will look away on their own while still smiling.
Experts believe this indicates emotion regulation — they are taking a break from the intenstity of one-on-on interaction.
3. The Duchenne smile
You’ll see in babies aged between two to six months of age. It is characterised by raised cheeks and constricted eye muscles and takes place in response to their parents’ smiles.
This kind of smile indicates intense emotion, say experts.
4. The “open mouth” or playful smile
Tickle your little one at around age eight months and you’ll see this smile, which is a raised-cheek, curled-lips, open-mouthed grin!
According to researchers, it is the strongest expression of joy in a baby of this age and usually occurs when you are playing with your little one or engaging with them in another positive way.
5. Anticipatory smiling
When babies are around six months old, they increasingly involve toys into their interactions with people.
For example, they will gaze at a toy then back at an examiner with and without smiling. This is “a sign that they can flexibly engage their own attention and recognize it in others,” Dr. Messinger says.
This kind of smile, when it happens, is a developmental milestone known as anticipatory smiling, first identified by researchers in 1990.
Investigators got babies between the ages of eight and 12 months to play with toys, with their mums sitting behind them. When the toys made a noise, the little ones would smile in reaction, with some of the older babies also turning to their mothers while still smiling.
Before they can speak, babies laugh at funny situations, even creating them themselves at around nine months of age, observe researchers.
Psychologist Vasudevi Reddy, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., found that most babies under the age of one will exhibit quite a few “clowning” activities that adults engage in, such as blowing raspberries to offering a toy and snatching it back.
Little ones at this age also become more and more aware of their audience’s reaction to their antics, which is another sign of their developing ability to engage with others. Some babies at around seven months old will even start laughing and then stop of others close to them didn’t join in.
Experts say that this behaviour shows how little ones, even at such a young age, are aware of other people’s emotions and will “adjust their emotional responses to match.”
Parents, with all this information, it’s important to not get worried if your baby is not smiling in a particular way by a certain age.
As Professor Messinger, who was earlier quoted in this article, says, “What’s important is to be there, be calm and enjoy the moment.”
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