With today being World Smile Day, Maria Tedeschi lends a mother’s view on the scientific study behind the smiling habits of babies.


It’s World Smile Day!, a feel good day devoted to smiling so when someone smiles at you, smile back.

I’ve always thought smiling was kind of instinctive, so this directive to reciprocate a smile seems kind of redundant to me. After all, returning someone’s smile makes you feel good.

Even when each of my four children were babies, smiling was the first real two-way interaction I had with them. It’s probably the first thing babies learn to master.

All the literature tells you when babies are newborns they can’t see properly. For the first couple of weeks, they’re only capable of making out contrasting shapes, so it’s not until six weeks that you’ll get a proper, “I see you, therefore I smile” type of interaction. Parents are often told spending time smiling at your baby teaches them social cues.

It makes sense of course; I spent so long studying my babies’ little faces and they in turn spent the same amount of studying mine; as they say, mimicry is the best way to learn behaviours.

So I never really gave the “when and how” much thought when it came to smiling; it seemed logical that it would happen.

However, a team of scientists have concerned themselves with the “when and how” in a recent study, which found something I would say every parent already knows. Babies do intentionally smile; they’re not just random facial twitches.

Once babies get the hang of smiling, they don’t stop. I have no doubt they will smile at you so you will smile back. Not only that, they are also probably pretty happy to see you.

Smiling seems to me to be the easiest thing in the world to do. Is that really just a learned behaviour?

I read a story about a 7-week-old baby Lachlan who was born deaf. At seven weeks old, Lachlan was fitted with hearing aids and heard the voices of his parents for the first time. Only then did he smile for the first time. So you have to wonder how much of smiling is learned behaviour and how much is just instinct; an outward manifestation of how you feel on the inside. Interacting with a baby is more than just looking and smiling; it’s about talking, touching, smelling, and tasting. (Let’s face it, babies put a lot of stuff straight into their mouths.)

There’s no doubt smiling is important for a baby’s development. It releases chemicals in their bodies that will help make them feel happy and safe. In Lachlan’s case, this makes all the sense in the world.

I don’t cry because it’s a social cue to alert someone that I’m feeling sad; I do it because my emotions are flooding out of my body. I have no control over crying much in the same way that I have no control of smiling when I’m feeling happy. It kind of just happens.

So, on this World Smile Day conduct your own social experiment and smile at everyone that crosses your path. I’d love to know what reactions you produce!


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