Why and When Do Babies Laugh? Scientific Studies Provide Insights.

Synthia Stark

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Humor is a subjective quality that varies from person to person. It can embody the sophisticated but witty banter between intellectual and philosophical types. It can also involve dumb humor, where everyone laughs at a silly fart joke.

It can also involve the deep and convoluted reaches of dark comedy, where we laugh at the things that are usually not funny, but we couldn’t help ourselves because of the timing and delivery of the joke. Overall, we can appreciate a good laugh every now and then.

Babies aren’t good at being subtle or coy when they’re feeling many emotions, such as amusement and fear. They don’t have the life experience for it. However, when a baby laughs, it can definitely melt our hearts, causing our great joy and pride.

Sometimes, cute babies make wildly animated faces when you play various games with them, like peek-a-boo and hide-and-go-seek. Other times, they randomly laugh at the silliest things, like a random grasshopper that is dancing outside their window or at the very existence of a very shiny orange.

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While these are some pretty silly scenarios, it’s a reality for many of you out there that have children. These strange moments give us great amazement and joy, and we find ourselves re-discovering parts of our own childhoods in the process.

As with all good things, there comes the bad. Babies usually cry for what almost seems like no real reason, waking you up at the oddest hours of the day. Perhaps the baby is hungry, wants extra affection, or wants their diaper changed. Either way, babies are heavily reliant on us for support, and we can’t let them down, so we laugh alongside them.

However, the question we have still remains: what causes babies to laugh? Do babies truly find their parents’ jokes funny? Or perhaps they see everyone else laughing, and so they chime in, in an effort to blend in? Are babies capable of such big brain moments?

Perhaps babies laugh as some sort of an automatic reflex, kind of like how someone else might react if someone else tickled them. But instead, this reflex is deeply rooted in their brains, brought upon them by the ancestors that were alive before them.

Perhaps the act of laughing itself will help ensure that their brains grow, towards healthier adult lives. I mean, people laugh when they socialize, and jokes definitely bind different kinds of people together, establishing a greater sense of friendship and solidarity. Perhaps babies laugh because they want those relationships really badly and can’t wait to get started on making friends.

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According to Dr. Gina Mireault, a leading childhood researcher and developmental psychologist, children generally start laughing well before they are 4 months old.

For a bit of insight surrounding Dr. Mireault, her research has been focussed on babies and their laughter. Essentially, her research is no laughing matter, especially if we, the adults, can find a way to use laughter to ensure that our children will be the smartest that they ever could be.

In 2017, Dr. Mireault conducted an investigative study where she wanted to figure out when young children first recognized humor. She also wanted to determine if laughing was something that was innate to the babies themselves, or if it was a skill that was learned over time.

In her study, Dr. Mireault examined the behaviors of over 53 babies, relying on short videos to document and verify the things that she had seen.

In one excerpt of the videos used in the study, a baby would sit with their fellow parent or guardian on one side, while the experimenter sat on the other side. As silly as this sounds, the experimenter would put on a big red clown nose. The video would focus on the baby’s reaction and then cue back to the experimenter’s face.

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The experimenter would rhythmically press their finger against their clown nose, making a strange but high-pitched beeping sound. The parents were instructed ahead of time to laugh at the researcher, even if the action wasn’t funny.

Sometimes, the babies would be confused at such a spectacle. The babies would fervently glance back and forth between their guardians and the researcher as if trying to make sense of what just happened.

After 10 of these beeps were made, and after the parents continued laughing at the situation, the baby would eventually start chuckling. Sure, the baby still looked confused and would continue to make cautious glances at their parents and the researcher, but they would eventually relent and laugh.

After about 45 seconds of this exercise, the researcher would stop making beeping sounds, and the guardian would watch the researcher emotionlessly as if the laughs never happened.

The researcher would then make more beeping noises than they ever had before. After about several instances of these beeps, the baby would start to smile, breaking out into some serious laughter.

But then the strangest thing would happen: the baby would glance back at their parents or guardians, and see that they were no longer laughing. The baby stopped smiling right away. The babies just knew that they broke a social rule.

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It’s rather curious that a study was able to examine laughter so carefully, especially in a research-oriented capacity. Plus, to summarize what just happened, the babies basically laughed once they got the confirmation from mom or dad.

However, they still remembered the “joke” moments later, continued laughing at the same joke, but then stopped when they realized mom or dad had stopped laughing.

You could possibly argue that your parents had a very powerful ability in determining what you found funny when you were a little kid. If they laughed at dumb jokes, perhaps you have a deep affection for them, too.

There were plenty of more studies done by Dr. Mireault in the years leading up to, and after that initial study. She continued replicating elements of this study to verify if her findings were in fact, true.

For example, an anecdotal story is full of rich content, but testing out other many more babies across multiple ages of developments might show a more well-rounded picture surrounding laughter.

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Other studies allowed Dr. Mireault to examine 4-month olds, 5-month olds, and 6-month olds specifically. Since the time of her initial laughing studies, her research had gained considerable funding, allowing her to measure the babies in various other ways.

For example, in a version of her study that only had 4-month olds, babies were also equipped with heart monitors. Dr. Mireault did this to examine their physiological responses, such as their body temperature and blood pressure while laughing.

Overall, according to the general findings of her studies surrounding laughter, the babies generally learned to laugh well before they could speak, crawl, or even walk.

When the parents laughed, the babies laughed even harder. Even when the parents behaved like normal people after laughing a lot, the infants still laughed on their own, but not before looking for confirmation from their guardians.

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With the 4-month olds specifically, when the parents were generally neutral, the children’s heart rates also decelerated towards happiness (as opposed to accelerating in fear). This is a good thing as it infers that the parents’ laughing behaviors helped their children elicit some pretty happy emotions like joy.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have joy. Joy helps you maintain some pretty good social relationships, especially when a good joke is cracked between you and others. Plus, it helps you keep alert and attentive across new situations, helping you and your children develop social experiences much faster than you might.

So there you have it. Babies laugh because their bodies can recognize humor and because mom and dad laughed and they copied them. However, once they reached over 4-months of age, they eventually learned how to laugh on their own, without the assistance of their parents.

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