When Do Babies Smile?

Waiting for your little one to flash a gummy grin? Learn more about your baby's first smile to see what it means for social and emotional development.

smiling baby and mom
Photo: HelgaAnnenkova/Shutterstock

Believe it or not, your baby was probably smiling long before they were born. Babies can smile very early in life, even in utero, says Mark Gettleman, M.D., a pediatrician and owner of Dr. Goofy Gettwell Pediatrics in Scottsdale, Arizona. These first smiles aren't intentional or in response to anything. Instead, they're reflex smiles, similar to the jerky arm and leg movements your baby's body experiences as it goes through the equipment-testing process, Dr. Gettleman says.

Soon enough, though, your little cutie will flash their first "real" smile, which signals improvements in social, emotional, and visual development. Keep reading to learn more about when babies first smile, and how to encourage them to flash that adorable gummy grin.

When Do Babies Smile for Real?

By about 6 to 12 weeks, your baby will begin to smile in response to you (social or "real" smiles). Until then, sweet-looking grins are automatic reflexive smiles in response to gas and other bodily functions.

You can tell the difference between a reflex and real smile by the timing and duration. Generally, reflex smiles tend to be shorter and occur randomly, when the baby is sleeping or tired. Real smiles, on the other hand, occur in response to something, like seeing mama's face or hearing a sibling's high-pitched voice, and they are consistent, Dr. Gettleman explains. When it's the real deal, you will see the emotion expressed in your baby's eyes.

At first, your little one's happy face will be in response to a mix of vocal and visual stimulation. They may light up from watching you sing a favorite lullaby or talk through a particularly yucky diaper change. Later, when their vision improves, simply seeing the face of their favorite people (you and your partner!) will be enough to make them crack a smile. You'll be the recipient of most of your baby's smiles, but they'll also exchange grins with others (that is, until stranger anxiety kicks in at around 6 months).

As your baby gets more smiling practice and enjoyment from seeing people's reactions, they'll start adding sound effects, Dr. Gettleman says. "It will start with cooing at first, and then lead to small giggles and waves of giggling," he says. By 5 months, your babe may surprise you with full-out belly laughs and squeals of excitement.

How Smiling Helps Your Baby’s Development

When babies smile, it’s a sign that their vision has improved and they are able to recognize faces. Their brains and nervous systems have matured enough to eliminate reflex smiles, and they are now aware that smiling lets them connect with others. Your little one is also beginning to realize that their feelings matter and have a direct effect on the people around them. They'll smile to express pleasure, excitement, contentment, and happiness. Consider it their way of saying, "Hey, you're doing a good job!" or "This breast milk rocks! Please give me more."

How to Make Your Baby Smile

Still waiting to see your baby's lips curl? Encourage them by talking to them often (make sure you give them time to "respond"), making eye contact frequently, and smiling at them throughout the day. And don’t be afraid to get silly: Making funny faces or noises, imitating animal sounds and behaviors, blowing raspberries on your baby's belly, or playing a game of peek-a-boo may push that smiley button on.

Be careful not to overdo it though. "Babies are developing the ability to regulate their emotions and may look away if they are getting too much stimulation," says child psychologist David Elkind, Ph.D., author of Parenting on the Go: Birth to Six, A to Z. Give your kiddo a little breather and try again later.

Once your baby does grin, they'll do it again and again. Why shouldn't they? When they grace you with a smile, your eyes brighten, you ooh and ahh, and you reciprocate with a beaming smile of your own. They dig that!

When to Call the Doctor

Though you're likely anxious to see your little darling's smile, a lack of early grins doesn't necessarily mean your baby is unhappy or that something is wrong. Babies will hit this milestone at different times, and some may need a few extra weeks. But if your baby isn't smiling by 3 months, mention it to your pediatrician.

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