As a new parent, one of the first heart-swelling, tear-inducing moments is when your baby smiles.
I don’t wish to disappoint you, but babies often smile without meaning to in early infanthood. What you might like to know is when do babies smile for the first time on purpose?
What Do My Baby’s Early Smiles Mean?
You might think your baby is a genius, smiling only moments after birth. Most babies take weeks to do that, right?
Sadly, no. If smiling shortly after birth meant genius, all babies would be Einstein—they start grinning in utero, before ever seeing another human face make the expression.
These smiles are known as “reflex smiles”—they happen naturally in response to internal stimuli.
Reflex smiles happen while babies sleep, while passing gas, peeing, and thankfully when they’re content, too.
These reflex smiles are short-lived and will only last seconds. Then their lips will fall back into whatever expression they were doing before it started.
But, those sweet little smiles are only on the lips. When baby smiles for real, believe me, you’ll know. The cause will be external, and the joy will be eternal.
What Comes Before the Social Smile?
Smiling is one of the biggest early milestones to watch out for, but it’s not the first. Before the smiles start to emerge, you’ll notice your baby observing you.
Gradually, your baby will start making eye contact, as their eyes develop coordination and begin to learn how to focus.
Prior to being two months old, all your baby can do is look from left to middle and back to left. Or, the same on the right side. But as the eyes develop, baby will start to move them from side to side seamlessly, and stop to focus on your eyes on the way.
As your baby starts to move their head more, the eye movement will improve, too.
Once the head and eyes are working together like clockwork, you know it’s not long before you can expect to see some gummy smiles, accompanied by bright eyes smiling too.
When to Expect a Real Smile
Those real smiles, which are called social smiles, will start to crop up around the 6–12 week mark. However, you might start to see your baby experimenting with smiles before then.
Smile experiments won’t be real smiles or even reflex smiles. Your baby is simply experimenting with their mouth and what it can do. Babies mimic what they see, but it takes a little while for them to master it.
The real smile will probably be in response to hearing your voice, or being picked up and seeing your face. And when it happens, you’ll know.
If you’re still unsure, these factors of a social smile are a giveaway:
- Your baby looks engaged in the smile and focused on you.
- Their eyes will smile, too.
Encouraging a Smile
Of course, it’s a joyous experience to see your baby smile just at your face or voice. And it will happen, so you don’t have to do anything different to encourage it.
But perhaps you’d rather the smile be in response to something you do directly. So, it’s good practice (even when you’re not encouraging smiles) to engage with your baby.
It often seems like young babies aren’t focused on you, or paying attention at all, but they are. Don’t give up, thinking your baby doesn’t understand—everything you do is a learning experience for baby’s social skills.
To help get those skills developing and make your baby smile, try:
- Chatting with them.
- Smiling at them.
- Holding them close to your face.
- Singing, with hand movements if you want.
- Playing games—the classic peekaboo is fantastic.
Who knows, perhaps your baby will smile for the first time when you pop up in a round of peekaboo—it’s been seconds since they’ve seen you, and to a baby, that’s practically a lifetime!
But before you try any of these activities, make sure your baby is alert and engaged. This won’t be a rare occurrence, though—everything is new to your baby, and you are fascinating.
Baby will stare at you like a caveman who just discovered fire, except much cuter. So take advantage of your baby’s natural fascination and engage, engage, engage!
As well as these highly engaging activities, simply bonding with your baby will make them more likely to smile at you.
Cuddles and snuggles are crucial for your baby’s development, too. In fact, several studies reveal that babies who get more early affection move on to develop more quickly. Studies also show these cared for and loved infants grow up to have better mental health, and have larger brains.
So, if you really want to encourage those smiles like you’re fast-forwarding to Christmas morning, keep up the cuddles. And keep up your own beaming expression, too—not that you can help grinning until your face cracks when you see your baby.
Why Isn’t My Baby Smiling?
Don’t worry if your baby isn’t smiling. Some develop more slowly, and that’s okay—it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. Just keep watching, keep engaging, keep smiling as baby stares up with those shining eyes full of wonder. It’ll happen eventually.
And if your baby still doesn’t smile, that’s okay too. Some babies just aren’t naturally smiley. That might change as they get older, but for now you have an adorable little grump.
If your baby is around four months old and is cooing, making eye contact, enjoys playtime, and is responding well to sounds and gestures, then you’re on the right track.
However, if any of those key things are missing alongside a smile, perhaps you should speak to your pediatrician. This may be a sign of autism, which is something you’ll want to be prepared for early in your child’s development.
And even in that case, it doesn’t mean your baby will never smile at you. It’ll just take some extra work, and more time than a grin from other infants or children.
How Important Is Smiling in Baby’s Development?
For you, smiling is an enormous, joyful milestone. But it is for your baby, too, even if they don’t realize it yet. It’s a sign that everything is on the right track.
Smiling lets you know your baby is learning social cues. From now on, they’ll start to engage with faces and make more eye contact.
These key parts of interaction are developed and learned early on and are something to be immensely proud of.
What Comes Next?
After the smile, you have a lifetime of grins and giggles awaiting you. But the next milestone up would be cooing—if baby coos, but doesn’t smile, you know things are (hopefully) on the right track, regardless of the missing amusement.
The cooing will occur around the same time as smiling. But then fast forward to 12 weeks, and you have the first peals of laughter to make you melt.
Around six to nine months, laughter and small noises turn to babbling and mimicking words. And as soon as the mimicking words begin, the dreaded “No!” will creep into the vocabulary and will stay well into adulthood … but hopefully, so will “love you.”
Smiling is just the first of many glorious things you have to look forward to—and once the smiling starts, it won’t stop! Then you’ll accelerate through the rest of those precious milestones in no time.
Remember, those first few months are crucial for your baby’s development, so keep engaging, waiting, and encouraging noises and faces. And if you ever have any worries, at any stage in your child’s development, ask your pediatrician. With babies, there’s no such thing as a stupid question.