Babies cannot talk to parents, but they can communicate with them through smiles (Brazelton, 2006). Smiling is generally regarded as a show of happiness. This ability of a baby boy or girl to look the mother or-father in the face and smile is one heck of an achievement in the baby world.In my opinion, the social smile is on the same pivotal level as the major infant groundbreaking accomplishments; the first walking step, the first spoken words,mama or dada. If parents pay attention, they will recognize when their newborns begin to smile at them. Unfortunately, lots of parents are so busy taking care of the baby, feeding it and changing its diapers, that they do not pay attention or engage their babies in any social or emotional exchange.
Before you read any further, I want to point out that not every baby smile is considered a social smile. The earliest forms of smile seen in newborn babies are considered reflexive. However, as babies get older the social smile emerges.
Let us use a newborn baby as an example. A day-old baby can smile, but such smiles in a newborn, or even a week-old baby, are not social smiles but a little reflexive tugging of the corners of the mouth. Reflexive smiles have been observed in babies in the womb (Kawakami & Yanaihara, 2012). They occur without warning.Parents might tell of how their newborns smile as they fall asleep, or after feeding,or when they are trying to pass stool. A reflexive smile is generated at the level of the brain stem, the subconscious level (Emde & Hamden, 1972),while a social smile is deliberate and targeted towards the caregiver.
Social smiles begin at six weeks (Emde & Hamden,1972), when babies become more alert; their vision and hearing improve, and they begin to see their mothers, fathers, and caregivers, and recognize their voices. At this age, a baby can open their eyes and smile at their mother or parents who come over to check on them. When the mother returns the smile, the baby might engage the mother and smile more. When the mother stops smiling, the baby may stop smiling. This means, beginning at age six weeks, babies can actually match their mother’s emotions – in this case engaging mothers or fathers, or other close caregivers, in a smile. The same goes when mothers appear sad. Infants at this age can, in a show of empathy,become sad, as shown by their small, frowning faces (Trevarthen & Aitken,2001).
Why the social smile is important
Researchers and developmental psychologists consider the emergence of a social smile as an important infant achievement. This is because the social smile tends to attract family members around the baby. Sometimes, siblings compete on who can trigger a smile in their little brother or sister, and before long everybody is interacting with the baby. The more people interact with the infant, the more his or her brain and neurons develop,interconnect and strengthen for future cognitive engagement.
In the beginning, a social smile could just be a ripple of a smile, here and there, and infrequent. A parent might wait for hours, or even wait in vain, to get a smile from a baby. But, as the infant becomes older, say, seven weeks, and then eight weeks or more, they tend to have a readily available social smile (Emden & Hamden, 1972), which continues to develop as long as it is encouraged by parents, siblings, caregivers or anybody else around the baby. If no one is there to promote the budding social smile, it will wither –and with it all the related brain and neuronal development.
Inadequate social engagement with a newborn can handicap the quality and the emergence of a social smile. Researchers (Worman, Holodynski, Kartner& Keller 2014) discovered that some cultures encourage mother and infant facial interaction more than others, and that such cultural practices affect the evolution of a social smile in infants.
Do not take for granted your baby’s effort to smile at you. Their smile is a way of telling you that they recognize your presence and that they are ready to interact. Respond, and smile back. Engage the baby until it is satisfied. These engagements, experts say, help stimulate the infant’s growing brain, needed for future cognitive development.
In my practice, during their routine visits, I hold babies in my arms and look in their faces, and often notice how some of them have a readily available, burbling smile. Others, however, don’t have much or any smile, almost exhibiting a show of indifference in our social exchange. One encounter in an office setting is of little significance, for it only gives a brief insight into an infant’s level of social interaction. Developmental evaluations are usually ongoing and done again at ages four months and six months, and as indicated by parental and clinician’s concern.
Like adults, babies can be temperamental, some given more to smiling than others. Having said that, parents should have their babies immediately evaluated by pediatricians or other practitioners if they have any concerns with the limitation of a social smile and interaction with close caregivers.
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Brazelton, T. B., & Sparrow, J. (2008). Touchpoints-Three to Six. Cambridge Massachusetts, MA:Da Capo Lifelong Books.
Emde, R. N., Harmon, R.J. (1972). Endogenous & exogenous smiling system in early infancy.
Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 11(2), 177-200.
Kawakami, F., & Yanaihara, T. (2012). Smiles in the fetal period. Infant Behavior and Development, 35(3), 466-471. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2012.04.002
Trevarthen, C., &Aitken, K. J. (2001). Infant intersubjectivity: Research, theory, and clinical applications. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 42(1), 3-48.
Wörmann, V.,Holodynski, M., Kärtner, J., & Keller, H. (2014). The emergence of social smiling: The interplay of maternal and infant imitation during the first three months in cross-cultural comparison. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45(3), 339-361.