What Baby’s Giggles Really Mean

What Baby's Giggles Really Mean

Eliciting baby giggles and smiles from your baby helps her develop in so many ways! Engage in merriment with your little one as she grows her own sense of humor.

Nothing is as delightful to parents as their baby’s laugh, and most moms and dads are willing to get pretty silly to hear the sound of their little one’s giggles and squeals. But humor is more than just an enjoyable way to pass the time—it is also vital to your baby’s healthy development.

The Significance of Humor for Baby

Humor is an important means of emotional communication. When you laugh with your baby, he senses your positive mood and approval. The mutuality and reciprocity of humorous social interaction provide a valuable context for learning how to communicate in loving relationships. Indeed, the mutuality involved in humorous interaction with your baby builds the parent-child attachment.

Families have their own unique humor styles, based on their culture, values, and experiences together, and humor builds family solidarity. Many families develop their own styles of humor to cope successfully with poverty, war, and other kind of losses. In some families sentimentality is taboo, but humor is used to express tender feelings in ways that are acceptable.

A good sense of humor will serve your child well in other ways as well. Even as early as preschool, humorous children tend to be more socially competent and more popular with their peers and have more advanced social skills and self-confidence, as baby comes to realize that he can influence others by making them laugh. (Whoa! I can make these people double over just by sticking my tongue out! I wonder what else I can do!) Some children even learn that humor is an effective way of deflecting teasing from their peers.

Humor is also a means of socialization, as parents teach a baby what is acceptable behavior (eating with a spoon) by laughing at unacceptable behavior (putting the spoon on baby’s nose). In fact, as baby learns what “the rules” are, he loves to break those rules to get a reaction—one reason he keeps dropping the spoon on the floor so you will pick it up is that he has learned that spoons do not belong on the floor.

How Humor Can Be Helpful

Recent research supports what your grandmother told you: humor can help your child cope with stress and adversity, partly by facilitating the release of beneficial hormones and partly by teaching her to reframe a stressful situation (from that other kid won’t let me play with him! to that other kid is acting like a silly goofball!). Recent neuroscience research shows that a humorous approach may even improve problem-solving capacity by enhancing the ability to see situations in different ways. Indeed, psychologists consider a good sense of humor to be an important part of a healthy ego.

Brain imaging studies suggest that humor might enhance children’s intellectual development, too. Infancy is the time when skills and abilities are being developed based on exposure to experience; neurons in the brain that are used develop further, while those that are not are pruned back. (This is normal; we are born with many more neurons than we need.) One study showed that humor, perhaps because it is generally complex, “fires” many parts of the brain and may help in integrating the parts of the brain to work together more effectively.

Engaging Your Baby’s Sense of Humor

Most of us don’t have to think about how to make babies laugh. Silly faces and noises are mainstays and seem to come naturally when a baby is nearby. But as babies mature, their senses of humor also mature, and their tastes in humor change. Context is also important; research shows that a baby frequently looks to his parents to see if some things are funny or scary, and, like you, he is less likely to see things as funny when he is tired or hungry. So how can we consciously encourage baby’s sense of humor?

  • Just as baby is learning words and skills from you, she is also learning humor, so be funny yourself. Tell riddles and jokes—”knock, knock” is always in season. Use humor to take the sting out of your own failures or problems. Don’t worry that she may not totally understand the issues; her receptive language (what she can understand) is way ahead of her expressive language (what she can say). More importantly, babies can sense stress, and they learn how to deal with it by watching their parents. If Mommy laughs when she loses something instead of losing her temper, chances are baby will, too.
    • Newborns are most amused by sensory stimulation (light bouncing and gentle tickling, the ever-popular raspberry on the belly, the familiar “baby-over-the-head” routine). Surprise is one of the first things an infant finds humorous, as when Daddy reappears in the Peek-A-Boo game. (Remember that at this stage, when he can’t see Daddy, he believes Daddy to be gone.)
      • Verbal jokes become more humorous to baby as her vocabulary increases, but even before she understands their meaning, baby is amused by the sounds of your words and your own reactions to them. Baby may not make her own jokes until the second or third year of life, but don’t forget—she understands a lot more than you know. Moreover, one study demonstrated that some infants “clown around” deliberately to elicit laughter from family members by the time they are eight months old.
        • Incongruity is an essential part of most humor. All of us are amused by things that are unexpected or out of context—this is often the basis of the hysterical “punch line” in a joke. A very young infant may laugh when you put a sock on your hand or a shoe on your head, for example, because he knows things are “off” here.In the first two years of life, baby is busy building schema—mental blueprints of how things work (from shoes go on my feet to people walk right-side up). When she sees something that violates her schema—just a little, not too much—she is amused, and she learns something to add to her collection of schema. For example, your 10-month-old’s first word is “bug,” and she joyfully points to ladybugs and ants and beetles as she practices her new skill. You put her stuffed ladybug in her baby buggy and say, “Look! The bug is in the buggy!” Your amusement communicates that words that sound alike can mean different things, and her brain stores that information away for later.
          • Baby is most amused (and grows the most) from jokes that are just barely above his level of competence. For example, he will find it more amusing to see Mommy crawling on the floor when he is crawling than he will a few months later when he begins to walk. Building on his current skills to teach new ones in this way is a way of “scaffolding,” that is building a bridge for him from a skill he has to a new skill.
            • Be supportive of your baby’s humor. Laugh at her antics and clowning, and she will enjoy your amusement and seek it out. (Be careful not to laugh at her mistakes unless they are deliberate.)It’s never too early to encourage your baby’s sense of humor, so don’t wait until you think he can understand a knock-knock joke to tell one. But don’t take it too seriously either; your own sense of humor is your baby’s best resource.


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