Did you hear the one about the baby with a sense of humour? From your baby's first smile to toddler giggles, there's something magical and healthy about laughter.
When it comes to listing the things you love most about your baby her smile will be near the top. And her laugh. Most of us can fondly remember that first smile and first proper giggle.
But strangely although we see our children's laughter as sheer joy it's often linked to fear. 'It's believed that laughter is caused by a rise in tension, followed by a fall,' explains psychology expert Dr Vasu Reddy. 'Your baby sees something that she finds odd or alarming, but that she quickly discovers is okay. The relief triggers the laughter.'
A good everyday example of this is playing peek-a-boo, which to your baby represents the threat of the loss of Mummy. That's why you're always sure to get a big grin once she glimpses your face again.
Smile, it's good for you
There are plenty of physical benefits linked to laughter, but humour is also a valuable social skill. And babies use it from as early as six months to help bonding. 'They often join in if you're laughing, without understanding the joke,' explains Dr Reddy. 'Babies are sensitive to people's emotions and they seek companionship through laughter.'
When your child gets older, she'll use humour to make friends. A good laugh can take the heat out of tense situations - everyone appreciates a well-placed joke when things are getting serious. And seeing the funny side can increase your child's ability to cope with bad things - if she's getting bullied at nursery, for example, as well as contacting the key worker to discuss the problem, you could help her cope by suggesting she stands up to the bully by imagining her in a funny position, like on the potty. Introducing humour can make situations seem less daunting and help your child deal with them effectively. And all this boosts self-esteem - knowing you can cope with situations like those mentioned above will increase confidence. Children who laugh with their families feel loved and worthy of love. And the more you laugh with your child, the more her sense of humour will grow.
In the beginning - Up to six months
Your baby's first true smile won't appear until around four months. Before that, at just a few days old, she'll have a reflex smile which is triggered by wind or surprise. This 'surprise' smile is often caused by tickling or the sound of a high-pitched voice, and is linked to the slight fear reaction mentioned before.
It's followed by what's known as the 'general' smile, which develops at around four weeks of age, and is triggered by the sight of an adult face. It's lovely to think of it as a smile of recognition, but the truth is that it's simply a survival instinct. A smiling baby is an appealing baby and one likely to receive care and attention.
It's not until at least four months that 'specific' smiling - what we'd think of as a genuine smile - begins. And that smile signifies your baby has recognised you. Your baby might also reward you with a real giggle at this stage, although that's more likely to occur when she's six months or older.
Give us a smile - Six to 12 months
The smiling reflexes of the first few months begin to fade now and are replaced by learned behaviour. So your baby needs to see people around her smiling in order to learn the same facial expression. Research has shown that babies who see fewer smiles are less likely to smile themselves.
Plenty of things will make her laugh, but before she learns to speak, the things she'll find funniest will be visual - and anything out of the ordinary will appeal. So people falling over or looking silly - pulling funny faces and making strange noises - will arouse interest and a smile.
Because she's young and her experience of what's 'normal' is very limited, she'll find lots of everyday things entertaining just because she hasn't seen them before. All sorts of animals, as well as babies and different people, can be highly amusing to your baby.
Silly Billy - 12 to 18 months
The idea of the ridiculous is particularly appealing to your little one at this age. Now she's learning rapidly - that shoes go on your feet, that a particular coat is hers, for example - you'll be able to use these props to make her laugh. Her growing experience tells her that it's funny to see you trying to wear her coat or put her shoes on her hands.
Clowning around - 18 to 24 months
Your child's physical skills are increasing now, so focus on those for a giggle. Tearing around, tickling and swinging into the air will do the trick.
As she learns more about the world around her and what's expected when it comes to her behaviour, she will push the boundaries by acting silly. This often appeals to others her age so can help her bond with other tots. Go with it, if you can, because it provides a welcome release from all the growing up she's having to do. If the clowning around happens at inappropriate places, try to distract her.
Humour is a great way to defuse clashes with a wilful toddler, or to make her do what you want. For example, distract her with silly songs as you do mundane tasks like brushing her teeth; try to squeeze into her pushchair if she's refusing to sit in it, and try clowning around to head off tantrums. Toddlers respond better to silly games and slapstick than to orders and shouting.
Muddling on - 24 to 36 months
She's learning to talk now, so mixing up words so she hears them in an unusual context will bring a laugh or two. The idea of a sheep saying 'woof', for example, is both ridiculous and funny to her. And even words in the wrong order are hilarious.
She's also becoming more aware of the world around her and the rules she lives her life by. So seeing others break the rules, or breaking them herself by, for instance, saying rude words which she knows are taboo, are particularly exciting for her. There's also an element of fear there - not knowing what the response to this 'naughty' behaviour may be - and fear, followed by relief, is believed to be at the root of much humour.
A good giggle
Laughter feels nice. It helps you bond and release tension, but there are also positive physical effects too. It:
- Increases the level of feel-good hormones, endorphins and neurotransmitters, which can lessen pain
- Decreases the level of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol
- Improves circulation and breathing
- Stimulates T-cells, which fight infection
- Relaxes muscles
Laughter brings the same benefits to you as it does you child, so humour is important in your day-to-day life too. If you can see the funny side of things, even on bad days, you'll find that you're less likely to feel overwhelmed or stressed. And seeing you laugh is a great example to your child. They copy everything we do, even down to that toothy grin.