I remember how my thinking shifted with each of my newborns the first time they smiled. Sure, they were still sleeping, suckling little blobs of flesh. But regular smiles was always a wake-up call — little blob’s a person!
Of course, a lot of people think those smiles are just gas. But I always figured my mother-love was so influential that my kids couldn’t help but figure out how to express a little back themselves.
It’s unclear if there’s any emotion embedded in these very early smiles or what they mean, if anything, to the infant. Daniel Messinger, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, suspects that these first smiles teach infants the positive associations attached to a smile that we adults already feel.
What a downer! Instead, Messinger thinks a smile might be a way to get into the emotional world that adults know. In other words, they smile, get that adult reaction (come on, you went a little nuts during those first smiles, right?) and they keep doing it. Rather than being an innate expression of happiness, babies learn to associate a smile with these positive emotions.
When babies are a little older, 8 to 12 months old, they use “anticipatory smiles.” Those are the ones that look kind of fake or forced — mouth closed, corners turned up — and are prompted by a toy or a puppy or something interesting. These anticipatory smiles indicate an entry into the social world: they’re smiling in order to share with someone else joy or interest in a third thing.
There’s some evidence that early and frequent anticipatory smiling around 9 months indicated a very social child even two years on.
Smiling, it turns out, prepares kids to participate in society.