Believe it or not, your baby was probably smiling long before she was 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. 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 her first "real" smile, on purpose. And you, in turn, will have a silly grin plastered on your face as you beam back.
Your baby's first real smile says a lot about his development. It's a sign his vision has improved and he is able to recognize your face. His brain and nervous system have matured enough to eliminate reflex smiles, and he's now aware that smiling is a way for him to connect with others. Your little one is also beginning to realize his feelings matter and have a direct effect on the people around him. He'll smile to express pleasure, excitement, contentment, and happiness. Consider it his way of saying, "Hey, Mom, you're doing a good job!" or "This breast milk rocks! Please give me more."
Your baby's reflex smile will disappear by time she's 2 months old, and her first real one will make an appearance somewhere between one and a half to 3 months (or 6 and 12 weeks) of life. 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 her 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.
If you're still waiting to see your baby's lips curl, there are some things you can do that may encourage her. Talk to her often (make sure you give her time to "respond"), make eye contact frequently, and smile at her throughout the day. Get silly, too. 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 her smiley button on. Just don't overdo it. "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, he'll do it again and again. Why shouldn't he? When he graces you with a smile, your eyes brighten, you ooh and ahh, and you reciprocate with a beaming smile of your own. He digs that! At first, your little guy's happy face will be in response to a mix of vocal and visual stimulation, Dr. Elkind says. Therefore, he may light up from watching you sing a favorite lullaby or talk him through a particularly yucky diaper change. Later, when his vision improves, simply seeing the face of his two favorite people (you and your partner!) will be enough to make him crack a smile. You'll be the recipient of most of your baby's smiles, but he'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, he'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.
Though you're likely anxious to see your little darling's smile, a lack of early grins doesn't necessarily mean she's 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.