In the Best Moments in Parenting list, the first true smile is surely up near the top.
“It was the most amazing feeling I think I’ve ever had,” says Robyn Price, mom to five-month-old Cameron. “He was one month and one day old, sitting in his swing, and I came in the room from letting the dogs out. I was welcomed with this huge smile—like I had been gone days and days! The fact that he could show he recognized me and was happy to see me, and without me encouraging him at all—it made my day.”
Smiling is also an important milestone in social development. In his entry on smiling in The Encyclopedia of Human Development, David Messinger, associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, charts the steps in infant smiling.
He explains that even newborns smile, typically during active sleep or when they are drowsy. These early smiles have a random, fleeting quality and “occur against a backdrop of frequent lip and mouth movements.”
Sometime after one month of age, though, babies start to smile in response to visual stimuli, especially a face. This is the beginning of social smiling, and it “signals the infant’s active, positive participation in the relationship.” And what a powerful social tool it is! Messinger points out that smiling not only allows a baby to express feelings of happiness and interest, it also elicits engagement and happiness from the person the baby is smiling at. Who can resist a baby’s smile?
The baby’s smiling behaviour continues to develop and become more sophisticated. At first, explains Messinger, babies tend to smile while gazing at their parents or a sibling. Between three and six months, babies develop new smiling skills:
• They become less dependent on their parents to elicit a smile and will smile at a toy, for example. They also become more able to stop smiling or look away when they need a break.
• They become more capable of using “very intense smiles” with raised cheeks and open mouths when they are excited. These are the heart-melting full-face smiles that parents eat up.
Once your baby becomes more aware of strangers, she may become more selective about who gets her smiles. And at around the one-year mark, you may see your baby smiling to communicate to you about something else. How does this work? The baby smiles at a toy or object, then looks at you, still smiling. It’s as if, writes Messinger, your baby is saying, “That’s a funny toy, isn’t it?”
That’s still in the future for Cameron. Meanwhile, he’s busy charming the pants off his parents. “It makes it worth everything,” says Price. “Middle-of-the-night feedings and sleep deprivation, it doesn’t matter as long as I see that smile at least once a day!”
This article was originally published in January 2007.