Why Do Babies Laugh?
What is Laughter Anyway?
Let's take a look at why babies laugh and what they laugh at. It's going to be a lot of fun and when you've seen some of the video footage here, I'm pretty sure you'll be laughing too. So get ready to learn something and have a great time in the process!
Before we can really answer the question Why Do Babies Laugh? it makes sense to be clear about what laughter is and what it is for in general terms, for older children and adults, too.
You might be surprised to learn that the question of what laughter is for and why we laugh - especially why babies sometimes seem to laugh at nothing at all - is one of those that still hasn't been given a full answer by science.
The latest research, which we'll look at in a minute, comes to some unexpected conclusions. It also suggests that the key to understanding why adults laugh is to be found in the laughter of babies.
But first, just take a minute to watch this video which is not only delightful and very funny but gets us started wondering - just why do babies laugh like this? Check it now before we go on...
Baby Micah Laughs Hysterically at Ripping Paper
How to Make a Baby Laugh
Giggling babies, babies laughing their little booties off, are funny for us too and I'd be very surprised if you didn't laugh along with baby Micah in the above video.
One of the things that parents learn early on is just how to make a baby laugh.
While science may have come late to the party, parents and families have been conducting unofficial research since humans first evolved.
Parents go to great lengths to make their babies laugh and giggle. Not surprising as we tend to associate laughter with happiness and most parents want their babies to be happy more than anything else.
One of the first things that scientists have done in their recent research is begun to gather all this natural data together and look for patterns in the results, hoping to find some common factors that make all babies laugh.
The initial results are interesting.
But before we check out the science, check out this crazy video of four babies - quadruplets - all laughing together with their mom...
Quadruplet Babies All Laughing!
Scientific Studies of Laughing Babies
One of the most wide-ranging studies into the laughter of babies since the 1960s is run by Dr Addyman of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Development at the University of London, UK.
"Smiling and laughing are indices of our understanding of the world. Adults laugh at something when they find it surprising or unusual; it is exactly the same for babies," said Dr Addyman in an interview for the Independent newspaper. "Finding out what makes infants laugh teaches us more generally about how humans understand and respond to the world around them, and also the ways in which that can change."
He is convinced that there is a purpose behind the laughter of babies - that it is more than an automatic response.
Dr Addyman believes that the root of laughter is in the baby's emerging need to socialize and bond with others around her.
“I think that’s the best thing I’ve found so far. Laughing is about bonding and connecting with other people.”
But another study has come to slightly different conclusions, suggesting that the baby's laugh is actually rooted in a response to uncertainty and fear. There is, as we all know, a fine line between surprise and shock.
But to better understand that theory, which we'll look at next - first just consider the main things parents do, the most common games they play, to make babies laugh.
Baby Laughs At Mom
Things Babies Laugh At
Scientists have discovered what parents already knew. There are certain things that babies will always laugh at, some things that they might sometimes laugh at and others are bound to make them cry.
But let's look at the sure-fire ways to get your baby giggling. Bear in mind that the ability to smile and laugh usually starts at about two months and in some babies may not begin until they are four months old.
Laughing Together With Baby
These are - according to both parental experience and scientific research - the things most like to make a baby laugh
- The age old game of 'peek-a-boo'
- High-pitched noises and parent's laughter
- Being thrown up in the air and caught
- Spinning round and suddenly stopping
- Tickle games. Especially when you pretend to creep up slowly and then suddenly tickle the baby
- When the parent pretends to fall over or hit himself
Recognize any of those? The interesting thing about these is that they all involve a buildup of suspense, followed by a sudden surprise and release of the tension.
So now let's take a look at the other most important research into why babies laugh, which has been conducted by Professor Graham of Michigan University. His research doesn't necessarily contradict Dr. Addyman's findings but it does cast it all in a significantly different light.
Why Do Babies Laugh at Nothing?
Are Laughing Babies Happy?
One of the things that Professor Graham is clear about pointing out is that all of these games are games of suspense and surprise. He goes on to point out that from a baby's point of view, these experiences could actually be interpreted as situations involving the possibility of threat.
Of course, it isn't as simple as that. Babies tend to cry when they feel genuine threat. However, they may be experiencing a kind of uncertainty, an ambiguity. Laughter may be the release mechanism - or even a defence mechanism - says Professor Graham, when a young baby is confronted with an ambiguous, possibly threatening scenario.
This idea is strengthened when we realize that the people who generally find it easier to make the baby laugh are the parents. So the experience of potentially threatening behavior from an otherwise trusted parent would trigger the laughing response.
We've all seen when a well-meaning friend, someone unknown to the baby, tries to make her laugh only to find himself in the embarrassing position of having caused the baby to cry instead!
Interestingly, many studies of military personnel responding to life-threatening situations in war zones show that many soldiers will begin to laugh almost uncontrollably at the most brutal realities that they are forced to confront.
Professor Graham has observed with his own child that
"He laughs the hardest when we scare the baby poop out of him, like looking away or pretending to sleep and then yelling ,"boo" in his face."
Babies may in fact not be laughing so much with straight-forward pleasure and surprise but with relief at the passing of a perceived threat.
Even if this is true - and not everyone agrees with Professor Graham's analysis - it remains equally true that the baby is enjoying herself at the laughing stage and that the experience is part of vital learning about how to interpret the world and build positive social relationships.
Twin Baby Boys Laughing at Each Other
The Evolution of Laughter: Darwin's Perspective
Charles Darwin, best known for his development of the understanding of evolution by natural selection, was also a keen diarist and observer of all kinds of natural phenomena. His own family were no less interesting to him from a scientific point of view than the rest of the natural world.
In 1877, he published an article in which he gave an account of some informal experiments he had undertaken with his young son. He noted that the baby responded to the typical games that parents play with their very young children. He was also curious to try some more unusual behaviors.
"I approached with my back towards him and then stood motionless; he looked very grave and much surprised, and would soon have cried, had I not turned round; then his face instantly relaxed into a smile."
"I had been accustomed to make close to him many strange and loud noises which were all taken as excellent jokes but... I one day made a loud snoring noise which I had never done before; he instantly looked grave and then burst out crying."
The great evolutionary biologist was unable to draw any absolute conclusions from these experiments but he had already suggested that the evolution of laughter was in some way linked to the evolution of a range of responses to stress.
Certainly, our closest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees, make a facial expression and accompanying sound that is very close to our smile and laughter but is actually indicative of stress when faced with a potential threat.
Baby Laughter Poll
Why do you think babies laugh?
So, Why Do Babies Laugh?
Well, the answer is that we still don't really know.
However, we can be sure that the experience of laughing is in some way linked to the release of stress and is an important part of human psychological development and social bonding.
And that remains true for older children and adults, too. We tend to laugh more when we are in company than we do when we are alone. And most of our jokes, from situation comedies through to stand-up, tend to revolve around situations that in real life contexts would be dangerous, harmful or at least embarrassing to us. We play out the stress of our lives in the fantasy of humorous stories.
The root is the same for babies as it is for us. After all, we were all babies once!
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© 2013 Amanda Littlejohn