Babies' Smiles Mean Even More Than You Think

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.

But gas people and moms with inflated egos are both wrong about the why and how of babies’ smiles, according to this great piece by Nicholas Day over on Slate.

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.


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Article Posted 6 years Ago
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