There’s nothing more incredible than hearing your baby’s first laugh, accompanied by a big smile. It's one of those baby milestones we all look forward to. And once you've heard that magical sound, you won't be able to get enough of it. But when do babies laugh? And how can you encourage it?
When do babies laugh?
"The first time your baby laughs is – on average – around three months old to four months old," says Developmental psychologist Dr Caspar Addyman, director of the Goldsmiths InfantLab and author of The Laughing Baby. "But researchers have found that babies start smiling in the womb. You might even hear your baby doing their first laugh when they're just a few weeks old. This will be a very small, breathy noise, because the muscles in their rib cage aren’t yet strong enough for a full-on chortle – but you’ll still know that they're finding something funny."
Why do babies laugh?
Every baby is different and how much each baby laughs varies from infant to infant – but you might find that your baby seems to snigger at some very surprising things. It might be the sight of their toes wiggling. It might be the unexpectedly comical sight of Daddy without his glasses on or the amazing sound spoon thumping on their tray. And it will almost certainly be a beam of delight at the joy of seeing you.
"Babies will laugh with delight at the sight of Mum – the most important person in their world," says Caspar. "And they often grin when they clock something about how the world works. The important thing to remember is that when your baby laughs, they're sharing a moment of triumph or joy with you. They want you to enjoy the experience, too!"
We’re not the only species who can share a joke. Apes do it. Rats do it! Lots of animals seem to have a sense of fun. And giggles and smiles are deep-rooted in human evolution, too. When a behaviour is this ancient and this widespread, it suggests it plays a very important function... "Researchers think that laughing is a key way of helping humans to bond," says Caspar. "That’s important to all of us, but it’s vital for babies who rely on their caregivers for everything. They have to bond!" And a shared chuckle is a fail-safe way to do that.
"Laughing connects us," says Caspar. "It’s a pre-verbal way of communicating. It releases endorphins – the brain chemicals associated with reward and pleasure – and it signals that we trust the people around us." When we laugh, we’re using our lungs. So, when we’re giggling we don’t have spare energy to do anything else (like fighting or running away). Why’s that important? Because it means we can only truly laugh when we feel safe and relaxed. If someone is laughing with you, they feel safe with you. When your baby laughs, they're happy and comfortable.
How to respond to your baby's laughter
"Pay attention!" says Caspar. ‘When babies cry, we look to see what the problem is, so that we can try to fix it. When your baby laughs, look to see what’s caused the happiness, because they want you to share it.’
But – disclaimer: It may be that the activity that’s bringing your baby joy is throwing their carefully-made lunch onto the floor, or scribbling on the wall with crayons. If you pay attention to these behaviours, you will encourage them. So, you may not want to pay careful attention to every moment of joy. "But when you do share (appropriate!) moments of laughter with your baby and pay attention to their happiness, you enhance that happiness," says Caspar. "You encourage them to invest more time in this activity that brings them joy."
How to encourage your baby's laughter
So, the trick is to find the things that make you both happy, and to make the absolute most of them. Ready? Here are eight simple ways to get a smile...
Newborn to one month
Between birth and the age of two-and-a-half to three, a sure-fire way to get a big baby grin is to play a spot of peek-a-boo. "The incredible thing about peek-a-boo is that the fun value grows with your baby," says Caspar. "When your baby is tiny, they have limited vision, so the joy of the game is that they see you looming in and out of their eyeline. When you come into focus the response is, ‘Hurrah! You’re there!’ It’s the simple gratification of having your attention."
By the time your baby’s eight or nine months old, they've developed object permanence. In other words, they know that you exist, even if you’re not right there in front of them. "By this stage, the delight in peek-a-boo seems to come from the fact that, when you hide behind your hands, your baby knows you’re there – and when you re-appear, you’re confirming their prediction and showing them that their expectations were right," says Caspar. "They're happy because they understand!"
The game reaches another level around your baby’s first birthday. "At around 12 months, babies start to notice that they can make you laugh," says Caspar. "This ushers in a whole new variety of fun. From now on, your baby will love doing things that make you smile and laugh in response. So, they'll laugh at peek-a-boo for the sheer pleasure of seeing and hearing your reaction."
By 18 months, your baby’s understanding has become even more sophisticated. At this age, they know the game pretty well. They know that you know the game. In fact, they know that you’re playing a game together. This is the joy of sharing something as partners, where you both know the rules and you’re enjoying one another’s company. They're happy because you are giving them your time and attention and playing with them.
Try some tickles
Babies laugh when they’re tickled. As they get a bit older, they start laughing even at the simple suggestion that they might get tickled. This feels disconcerting for some people... because we all know that too much tickling can become deeply unpleasant. So, why do babies respond to (gentle) tickling with such delight? "We’ve known for decades that the same group of nerve fibres tell the brain whether we’re feeling ticklish, itchy or in pain," says Caspar. "There is a link between these three things, but the brain can tell them apart."
Tickling stimulates the anterior cingulate cortex – the part of our brain that kickstarts the fight-or-flight response – and puts our body on high alert. But gentle tickling doesn’t hurt. So, we’re stimulated, but fine. Nobody knows for certain, but it’s possible that it’s this contrast – between the physical being-on-high-alert and the reality that we’re absolutely fine – that causes the laughter.
"You can gently tickle your baby’s face with your fingertips when they're a newborn," says Caspar. "As they get a bit older you can play games like Round and Round the Garden with them (tickle under there!). Your baby learns that tickling is just a game. As they get bigger, they'll recognise when you make a move to tickle them – and that anticipation, in itself, will make them giggle. Now they're laughing because she knows the joke!"
One month to four months
Give them a massage
There’s something almost magical about baby massage. It doesn’t always provoke all-out laughter, but it does produce smiles, relaxation, and soporific happiness in lots of babies.
"There are lots of reasons for that," says Caspar. "Humans have receptor cells in their skin that respond to stroking: lowering stress levels and boosting our immune systems." Massage is a way of gently caressing your baby and – done well – it’s a very responsive form of interaction. You’re paying attention to what your baby likes, and they're communicating with you.
"Plus, as with raspberries (see below), being massaged helps your baby to become more aware of their body," says Caspar. "That awareness helps them to feel secure in the world."
Blow some raspberries
Ah, raspberries. Who doesn’t love pushing their lips together and making a trumpeting sound against their baby’s body? And those funny noises get a big thumbs-up in the smile stakes, too. Turns out, babies love raspberries (as well as the word ‘boo!’; animal noises and hearing other people laughing!).
But the added spice of the raspberry is that it isn’t just a sound that tickles the earbuds: it’s also a physical feeling.
"Simple, physical sensations – like raspberries – help babies to become aware of their bodies," says Caspar. "This is one of the first things they need to do in order to learn how to navigate the world. So, when you make this interesting, rippling, vibrating breath on their skin, it helps them to understand the boundaries of their body. That’s learning. And that’s fun!"
And by five to six months old, your baby will be blowing raspberries right back at you, as they practise learning to control their tongue and lips.
Five months to six months
Bash some blocks
At around four to five months old, babies have gained the muscle strength, coordination and motor skills they need to be able to manipulate objects. From this age on, you can get a baby belly laugh by letting them hold, build, throw and bash toy blocks. But, why is this so satisfying?
"Babies get a big kick from exploring the world," says Caspar. "All humans are happy when they enter the ‘flow state’ – the state of being in which we’re absorbed in what we’re doing: and we’re happily practising and refining our skills. Blocks are a wonderfully simple way of learning to move and manipulate other objects. So, when your baby side-swipes their tower of blocks and giggles as they tumble to the floor, the joy comes from the fact that they did that. Result!"
Six months to eight months
Once your baby has developed strong head and neck control, they can start the laughter-inducing game of flying. You sit on the floor facing your baby, hold them firmly around the chest, and say, ‘One, two, three... whee!’ On the whee, you roll backwards, so that you’re lying on the floor and they are ‘flying’ above you.
"This provokes laughter because you’re playing a game together and because babies love those sensations of being moved," says Caspar. "Younger babies love being rocked, and often enjoy having their legs ‘bicycled’. We think the rocking is because they’re so used to this movement when they’re in the womb. And the bicycling is another way to help your baby understand how their body moves and works."
And, as babies get older, they love the experience of moving in new ways: playing the flying game; swooshing in a baby swing and – later on – sliding down a slippery slide.
Nine months to 17 months
Make a nappy hat
Somewhere between the ages of nine and 15 months, your baby gets sussed about what this life is all about. They know how your day works. They understand what to expect. They get the routine. "Which is why they understand when you do something silly and unexpected that’s out of routine," says Caspar. "We’re talking socks on hands; (clean) nappies on head; buckling their toy into the pram and putting them in the toy basket. They're alert to the fact that you’re deliberately mixing things up to play a game with them – and they love it!"
18 months and up
Engage in role-play
When your youngster starts to role play and engage in imaginative play, they're doing all sorts of things that help to make them happy. They're demonstrating their understanding of the world. They're building their skills and making decisions. And when you get involved and play with them, the fun intensifies.
"You’re giving them your attention, which is peak pleasure for youngsters," says Caspar. "And in lots of these make-believe games, you’re allowing the roles to be reversed and giving them a bit of power. They're playing mum and putting you to bed. They're going to the shops and deciding what food to buy. They're giving you a treat of some cake and a cup of tea. Never underestimate how much your youngster will love to play in this way with you. If you fully enter the game and pay your part, you’ll both end up smiling."
Why would a baby not laugh?
If you find at times that your little one isn't reacting to things that usually make them laugh or even just don't do it very often, don't fret. As with all milestones, babies develop at their own rate and it may just be that they need a little more time. Or it quite simply might just be part of their little personality, just like certain adults can be quieter or more sensitive or shy, so can babies.
If your baby is showing no signs of laughing towards the end of seven months old, chat with your health visitor about your concerns.