A child's sense of humor, from first smiles to potty jokes.

By Denise Porretto
Cheyenne Ellis

From birth, infants express needs that demand immediate gratification, most notably for milk, sleep, or a cuddle. But it's often not until that first smile, when they're between 1 and 2 months old, that we realize they want social interaction as well. Their smiles say to us that they are happy, content, and enjoying what's going on around them. Around 4 or 5 months, smiling takes on an auditory dimension and turns into laughter.

An environment that supports and recognizes the lightness of life is essential for cultivating a child's sense of fun. Respond to your child's attempts at levity and be willing to do silly things over and over.

Here's what tickles your baby's funny bone and why -- from infancy to toddlerhood.

Early Laughter

A baby's first laugh is usually reserved for the people who first made him smile: Mommy and Daddy. It begins with parents making faces and funny noises to get the baby excited and interested, notes Doris Bergen, PhD, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A baby's relationship to the adult doing the funny stuff matters as much as the physical sensations and funny noises; he'll laugh and play only if he feels secure.

A little later, what makes an infant giggle is primarily physical and feels pleasurable: blowing raspberries on his belly, tickling his feet, picking him up and flying him gently through space.

At about 4 months, a baby begins to laugh at things he can see and hear. He'll delight in nonsense humor -- an exaggeration of things he typically experiences, such as faces with wide-open mouths and big eyes and wacky sounds such as toots and trills.

Your baby's giggles mean he's having a good time, but he doesn't yet have a true sense of humor. He'll begin to develop one within the next six months, when he develops the cognitive ability to find an idea funny.

Funny Faces and Flying Food

As your baby grows, his sense of humor begins to emerge. He'll still find belly raspberries worth a howl, but around 9 months, his laughter will also reflect a more sophisticated understanding of the world around him. This understanding breeds several kinds of humor:

  • Violation of the rules, such as throwing food or making a mess, can make a baby roar. Finding these activities funny indicates that she has learned what the rules are and how to break them.
  • Element of suspense, including games such as peekaboo or jack-in-the-box, occurs when the baby knows that something funny is about to happen. This sense of humor indicates that he grasps the fact that objects that are out of sight continue to exist. This is a major milestone because it helps a child learn to anticipate what lies ahead based on what happened in the past.
  • Incongruity humor, or the element of surprise, occurs when a baby expects one thing and something entirely different happens. To get the joke, he first needs to know what typically happens. Only then is he capable of noticing that something unexpected took place.

However, not all babies find the same things funny. Whether your baby laughs depends a lot on his temperament and how he reacts to certain kinds of stimulation. A very sensitive baby may hate the airplane game and being tickled, while his brother may pull your hand to his stomach to tickle him more.

From Sight Gags to Word Games

In the first year of life, incongruity humor is, for the most part, based on action and visual appearances. But in the second year, once a toddler begins to use language, incongruity can be verbal as well. For example, you ask your child what a cat says and she answers, with a sly smile, "Moo!" Also around their second birthday, children start to understand rudimentary conceptual humor -- for instance, if you pretend not to know their name and call them something else.

Humor is now more interactive as your toddler initiates games, deftly follows your lead if you start one, and even elaborates on things, such as adding another word to your rhyming pattern or substituting a nonsensical word for the usual one in a phrase.

Kids learn in toddlerhood how to charm and work a room. They discover easily that they can be center stage and get laughter and attention, says Elizabeth C. Vinton, MD, a clinical instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Toddlers trying to make people laugh often do the following things:

  • Imitate adults who made her laugh -- draping a blanket over her head, for instance, and then pulling it off with a big "Pee-Booo!"
  • Clown with animated faces and movements
  • Go for the comic effect of distortion, such as putting a shoe on her head or making her juice cup talk

Potty Humor

When toddlers are being toilet trained, they often add another kind of comedy to their routine: bathroom humor. This is the age when a dawning awareness of the body and how it works brings such words as "pee-pee" and "poopyhead" to the toddler vernacular. Young children somehow know potty humor is unacceptable and they talk this way to elicit a reaction, explains Bergen.

Your child's bathroom jokes also serve a purpose. Like adults, toddlers use humor as a coping strategy for stress and transition. Potty talk helps them deal with the challenging task of learning to use the toilet. We always see themes in humor that are related to worrisome things, Bergen says.

Let down your guard against goofiness. No one is watching except for one very appreciative audience member. And it's guaranteed she'll laugh so hard, she'll pee in her diaper.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

American Baby

Comments (1)

December 3, 2018
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