This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Rosanna Spear, a partner at Lansdale Pediatrics, a private outpatient pediatric practice in Lansdale, PA. Spear has been practicing pediatrics for over 20 years, she is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and board-certified with the American Board of Pediatrics.
It’s one of the most anxiously awaited and celebrated moments in parenting: seeing your baby smile for the first time. In fact, we want it to happen so badly that we often tell ourselves the way our newborn’s mouth curls at the corners or how their cute dimples deepen during sleep is the real deal. And while those technically are baby smiles, there’s a big difference between them and “social” smiles — the kind that truly means something. Don’t worry if you didn’t realize there was a difference; it’s a distinction many new moms don’t make.
Despite how many people will tell you that newborn smiles are just a reflex or a symptom of being gassy, experiencing muscle twitches, or a bowel or bladder movement, though, new research has shown that that might not always be the case. Per The Conversation, some studies have shown that newborns tend to move their cheeks and their eyebrows before they ever smile in an apparent attempt to mimic their caregiver. So, when they eventually get to the smile part, they might mean it. If you want to genuinely try to make your newborn smile, looking at your baby and smiling is the way to go.
Even so, it really can be hard to tell the difference between a social smile and a reflex smile — especially because newborns tend to smile throughout their sleep, too. But we’ll get into all of that later. Since you obviously don’t want to miss the authentic first-smile moment when it comes, here’s a guide to your little one’s gummy grin.
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Why is a baby’s smile such a big deal?
Aside from melting your heart into a puddle of gushy mommy goo, baby’s first smile serves another important purpose. It’s an early, pre-verbal form of communication. Basically, it’s one of the tools in your newborn’s arsenal that they might use to get your attention since they can’t yet speak. It’s also a major social milestone because it facilitates your little one’s interaction with the outside world.
What’s a reflex smile?
So, here’s the letdown, Mama: Your newborn isn’t a smiling prodigy. Yes, we all get giddy and go completely soft when our one-week-old seems to shoot a smirk in our direction. However, smiles at this stage fall into the “reflex smiles” category. Despite what their name suggests, these smiles aren’t really a response to anything. They’re random but often occur when a baby is gassy or sleeping (more on that in a minute).
It may interest you to know that reflex smiles actually start in utero! Between 25 and 27 weeks gestational age, baby smiles for a purely perfunctory reason — to practice the skill.
How early can a baby really smile?
Now, for the good stuff. If you’re on the lookout for a legit baby smile, keep your eyes peeled starting around week six. Baby’s first “true” social smile often takes place between that point and twelve weeks, frequently falling in the six- to eight-week span. Anything before that point is likely just a reflex smile.
What’s the difference between reflex smile and social smile?
If your nugget is right on the cusp of that real-smile window and gives you a little lopsided grin, you might wonder if it’s a reflex smile. Well, look for context clues. Is your baby looking at you? Are they alert? Does their smile look symmetrical? These are all signs you’ve been blessed with your first social smile. Because true smiles are a social activity, baby will want to engage with you — they’ll probably try to hold eye contact and/or the smile until they get a reciprocal smile from you.
Why do newborns smile in their sleep?
You might notice your newborn smiling in their sleep the very first week you bring them home. Naturally, your inclination will be to celebrate, take a million pictures, and post that sweet sleepy smile all over your social media feeds. Hey, go for it! Cuteness like that should always be shared. In all likelihood, though, what you’re looking at is a reflex smile. These faux smiles are super-common for a sleeping newborn.
What gives? These smirks could be the result of gas. Or, they could just be your baby’s way of trying on different facial expressions.
When do babies giggle and laugh?
You’ll have to wait a wee bit longer to hear the heavenly sound of your baby laughing: around 12 weeks or so. Obviously, it’s well worth the wait. Besides, once your baby starts smiling at you, you’ll be totally obsessed with that for a while. It’ll make the time fly by until they bust into their first giggle fit.
In full disclosure, as much as you’d like to think that your baby is laughing at your jokes, that’s likely not the case. But don’t be discouraged! Even if they don’t understand your jokes over the changing table, smiling and giggling mean that their brain and vision have matured enough that they can see and recognize your face.
Also, don’t be worried if your baby isn’t laughing around the second month, right on target. Some kids are more austere than others, and child development happens differently for everyone. That said, if your infant isn’t smiling or giggling by six months old, you might want to talk to your pediatrician.
How do you make baby smile and laugh?
There are tons of ways to encourage your baby to smile and laugh throughout their first year. Here are some to try:
- Use a gentle touch. Whether it’s on their cheek, tummy, or feet, experiencing a new sensation might get them to break into an intentional smile.
- Kiss or blow raspberries on your newborn. Since that sensation will also be totally novel, it might make them bust out in laughter.
- Make funny noises. This one should do the trick a little later on, closer to the six-month mark and onwards. And, TBH, kids never really get tired of funny noises!
- Play games. As your newborn gets older and can actually see you, you should engage them in games to get them to smile and laugh — peek-a-boo is a classic. Still, it likely won’t elicit an intentional smile or laugh until around 4 to 6 months, when they begin to understand object permanence or the concept that something still exists even when you don’t see it.
- Be goofy. Whether it’s pretending to be an animal or putting something on your head, laugh along, and an older baby will get the joke. By 9 to 12 months old, anything new or out of the ordinary will be funny. And lucky you! It will be funny over and over (and over) again since everything is new to an infant.
- Bring in Fido for backup. After 12 months old, your newborn will stop watching you for cues about when to smile and laugh and start to find jokes on their own. Pets and pet noises or other kids are solid go-to ideas.
What if baby isn’t smiling by 8 weeks?
One of the most impactful things you can remember as a parent is that every child is different. Just as grown-ups are their own individuals, so are babies. While we all love the idea of the chubby grinning baby, that might not be your offspring’s vibe just yet.
What you can watch for are other signs that your baby is interacting and engaging with the world around them. By three months, they should definitely be “communicating” in some way with their caregivers or even strangers. If your baby isn’t smiling and is exhibiting other possible signs of developmental delay, bring up your concerns to their pediatrician.
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