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Make Your Baby Laugh!

baby laughing

The joke Mom is playing pat-a-cake with me--and laughing up a storm.

Why it's giggle-worthy Your tot is copying you. (Don't worry: He's laughing with, not at, you.) Special brain cells called mirror neurons hard-wire your newborn to imitate your actions, so he'll unconsciously return your smile and, in a few weeks, mimic your bursts of laughter. "It's like going to a comedy club," explains Gina Mireault, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Johnson State University, in Vermont. "You laugh because everyone else is laughing." But there's another reason this game never gets old: Mom isn't usually this goofy. "A lot of humor in children is based on their realization that something is out of the ordinary or surprising, what we would call incongruous," says Doris Bergen, Ph.D., distinguished professor of educational psychology at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. Take it from Erin Wimmer, of Cedar City, Utah, who plays games to get giggles out of her daughter: "Kaitlyn laughs when I sing a peekaboo song while covering and uncovering my eyes."

The joke Dad is pretending he's a chimp.

Why it's giggle-worthy Pop may look crazy, but he's having a good time. Clowning around, whether you're making slapstick body movements or weird facial expressions, is right up your 6-month-old's alley because it's just plain kooky. That's the reason Jay Christensen's "Old Man Witherspoon" routine went over so well with his four children. "He'd cackle like an ancient, toothless, crazy man and rub his five o'clock shadow on their cheeks," says his wife, Amy, of Henderson, Nevada. The odder you act, the closer your baby will study you for emotional cues (a behavior called social referencing) to see that you're playing around and not going nutty. By smiling and laughing at yourself, you send signals that say "I'm having a ball" and encourage your baby to enjoy the absurdity, not panic. "Parents need to give their infants cues to make clear, 'This is safe and this is fun.'" Dr. Mireault says. "Deadpan doesn't work with babies." Dads tend to be more successful clowns than moms, in part because they're apt to be more physical and uninhibited, Dr. Mireault adds. So let yourself go bananas. That dorky smile on your face will show your little one that you're trying to entertain him, not having a psychotic breakdown.

The joke Mom is wearing a shoe as a hat.

Why it's giggle-worthy It's absurd. Your tot needs to perform some impressive mental gymnastics to comprehend this. She first has to know that shoes go on feet, not heads, a fact she's picked up in the past few months by watching the people around her. By 9 months, children can sense when something is ridiculous, so they love when they notice strange happenings. "When my son, Boyce, was a baby, his older sister, Naomi, walked into the room and, without a word, put a paper bag over her head," says Laura Rawlins, of Ames, Iowa. "Boyce began to laugh so hard he couldn't catch his breath. Naomi removed the bag, said hello, then put the bag back on her head, and the hoots started again." In true tot fashion, anything that's funny once is funny five times in a row. "Parents forget this because it's so simple, but if there's something that makes your baby laugh, repeat it," says Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. "We adults tend to get bored, but for a baby, everything is so new that it might still be funny 20 or 30 times."

The joke The cat meowed.

Why it's giggle-worthy You had to be there. As babies get older, they rely less on watching adults to know what's funny; they begin to make the call on their own. Odd sounds are particularly hilarious, as evidenced by a few popular YouTube videos that show babies laughing hysterically as Dad makes strange, high-pitched pinging noises or tears a piece of paper. (Search YouTube for "laughing baby" if you need a pick-me-up.) When Jessica Blaser's daughter, Davis, was 5 months old, the mom from Canyon, Texas, could make her laugh just by saying "knock, knock." "She had no idea what I meant, but for some reason, she cracked up every time." Experts aren't sure why certain words and sounds are comedy gold, but hey, whatever works!

The joke Your toddler is tickling you.

Why it's giggle-worthy This time, she's making you laugh. "Babies seize on figuring out what people find funny," says Vasu Reddy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Portsmouth, in England. "By the end of the first year, most kids are doing something to elicit laughter." You may have noticed this around 7 or 8 months, when Baby made a silly face over and over because it cracked Dad up. But by 15 months, some tots are really starting to work the room, and a tickle attack on Mom has the added fun of being a zany role reversal. "My girls went through a phase when they thought it was hysterical to 'feed' Mommy," says Crystal Willis, a mom of four from Silver Spring, Maryland. "They would put a Cheerio in my mouth and laugh and laugh."

The joke Making a mistake--on purpose

Why it's giggle-worthy At 18 months, your little funster has the world (or at least his portion of it) largely figured out, so nothing is more hilarious than making a blunder--intentionally--or pointing out when someone else makes one. "When toddlers make a deliberate mistake--for instance, singing the wrong words for a song they know--they're demonstrating an awareness of cognitive incongruity," Dr. Bergen explains. The joke is that they know what's supposed to happen, but it doesn't, like when Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street uses a banana as a trumpet. Carrie Wallace, of Lawrence, Kansas, experienced this with her son: "My 18-month-old, Dmitri, has animal toys that came with matching hats. He'd put the wrong hat on one, look at me, then laugh uproariously." With your would-be Will Ferrell's budding language skills, he just might tell you that a cow says "baa," or that Mom's name is Daddy. Overturning the social order? That's a scream.

A good sense of humor is high on the list of traits we value in children, but there aren't exactly flash cards for funny. Follow the tips below to grow a tot who gets the joke.

Enjoy His Pranks

Whether they're mixing up animal sounds or telling wacky riddles, most kids live to get a laugh out of Mom and Dad. When you yuk it up, your babe is motivated to perfect her comedic timing.

Chuckle Often

By laughing, you show your kid what's funny. Try pointing out the amusing aspects of daily life. (Is that dog wearing a rain hat?)

Play More

Cut loose, Mama! "Laughter is a tension reliever," says Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. Plus, clowning around with your wee cohort builds your sense of connection--a boon whether or not he turns into the next Adam Sandler.

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.