In that instant, all the work (sleepless nights, endless diaper changes) over the past several weeks seems well rewarded because your little angel finally flashes you that pink, gummy grin. And then for the next several days, we parents try our best to re-create that smile, for family, friends, the garbage man—basically anyone who will pay attention. So when can you expect this first real smile—and how can you tell it from a reflex smile?
Babies give fleeting smiles as early as birth and even smile in their sleep. But, according to experts, this is a reflex action or survival instinct similar to other newborn reflexes like rooting and sucking. These first reflex smiles are innate and are believed to make newborns more appealing to keep them safer.
“I can’t say that I remember the very first smile, because in the beginning so many of the little smirks were questionable,” says Christine Schmid, an Arizona mother of 5-month-old Sydney. “We couldn’t tell if she was smiling, if she had gas or if she was just uncomfortable. I was one of those moms that read too much and learned that in the early weeks of life a child smiles for survival reasons. If they can win the love of everyone in the room, they’re likely to be fed and cared for. However, even knowing this, the first smiles were the greatest.”
Expect these reflex smiles to start sometime around birth to 3 days and to last until approximately 2 months.
Baby’s First Real Smile
Sometime around your baby’s 6th to 8th week (although some parents say as early as 4 weeks), the smiles become a reaction to stimuli or a “learned” smile. The grin lasts a bit longer and you can even see expression in her eyes. Babies learn to smile because they see your reaction. The joy in your face and the smiles and laughter she gets from you makes her want to repeat it, again and again.
It’s hard to distinguish between what is a real smile and a reflex smile, but generally, your baby will use her whole face, including her eyes, when she is smiling to please you or in response to your overjoyed reaction. But don’t worry if you haven’t seen that real smile by week 8. Babies develop at different stages, and some very happy babies will wait up to 12 weeks before flashing the first real smile.
According to Dr. Martha Heineman Pieper and Dr. William Joseph Pieper, authors of Smart Love, the first social smile could appear around 6 weeks, but is not likely to stick around on a regular basis until 12 weeks. And by 6 months, most babies smile happily and readily at the people they know best.
“Ashley smiled from the day she was born, and she was always smiling in her sleep,” says Amanda Tabscott, an Indiana mother of two. “It wasn’t until she was about 5 months old, when she would wake up and really smile especially for me, happy to see me in the morning.”
“In the beginning, I felt like everything I was doing must be wrong,” Schmid says. “Sydney wasn’t sleeping and she seemed to always be crying for food. Although this is completely normal, I guess being a new mom, I didn’t know it at the time. So after weeks of giving this little girl all my love, attention, and energy, she gave me smiles that told me ‘Life is good, Mom! You’re doing a good job, and it’s going to be all right.’”
Games to Make Baby Smile
- Peek-a-boo: One of the all-time favorite games for babies, peek-a-boo can simply be played with a blanket, burp cloth, or even a napkin. Cover your face to hide from Baby and then remove the napkin and say “peek-a-boo!”
- Upsy Daisy: While your baby is on her back, let her grasp her hands around your thumbs. Slowly pull her up to sitting position and say, “upsy daisy!”
- Bubbles: Use liquid bubbles and blow them toward your baby’s face or on her neck or belly. She will get a kick out of the mysterious bubbles, especially when they pop.
- Kisses: Tickle your baby by kissing her on the neck or blowing on her face or belly to make her show that toothless grin.
- This Little Piggy: Babies are infatuated with their toes, and even love to put them in their mouths! Recite the popular rhyme as you play with their toes: “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy had pizza, this little piggy had none. This little piggy went WEE WEE WEE all the way home!”