The Beauty (and Meaning) of a Baby’s Laugh!

May
2014
23

posted by on General

Today I’m blogging abut a baby’s laugh. It’s a beautiful subject, and makes me smile just writing the words. Baby’s laughter is infectious, and widely adored – especially by the parents.

I was visiting a friend recently, who has an eight month old boy – a very contented little chap who likes to laugh. He showed special delight at Mum’s hiccups – laughing at every single one. This made me wonder about their little laugh and what it’s based on. It’s not a laugh like that of an older child or adult’s – but there’s a connection there… like they’re learning to find fun in everyday things.

After much Google research I came across an old article by The Independent about Britain’s “Babylab” (an infant research unit) where they conducted a Baby Laughter project – the first in-depth study since the Sixties into what makes baby’s laugh.  Dr Caspar Addyman, the leader of the study and Research Fellow at London Birkbeck University’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, commented that: “Smiling and laughing are indices of our understanding of the world. Adults laugh at something when they find it surprising or unusual; it is exactly the same for babies. Finding out what makes infants laugh teaches us more generally about how humans understand and respond to the world around them, and also the ways in which that can change.”

Dr Addyman has been using modern technologies such as eye tracking – infrared lights attached to a computer which capture corneal reflections, recording exactly what a baby is looking at – and electroencephalography, which measures brain activity, showing when and approximately where in the brain information is processed – although he admits getting the babies to laugh on demand in the lab proved a big challenge. To get past this problem he also launched the study online, allowing parents to log their children’s laughter and Dr Addyman to record results as they are played out in real life. Leslie Tucker, the centre coordinator, explained that this type of research “can be more accurate, because the data is compiled by parents who see their child on a daily basis, in various moods”.  Although they hadn’t analysed the data in detail at that time, there were already starting to see trends.

Zip forward a couple of years, and a further article about the same study was published earlier this year in the Daily Mail.  The study has grown and is now surveying thousands of families worldwide, and has some interesting preliminary findings to report…

  • Boys laugh more than girls in early months
  • Babies cry to make you stop what you’re doing – but laughter is their way of telling you to continue
  • Mums and dads appear to score equally when it comes to making a baby giggle
  • Contrary to general perception, laughter is present from a very early age – 90% of babies have smiled in the first two months and laughed just a few weeks after that
  • Equally, a small number reported their baby didn’t laugh at all for the first 12 months, which suggests babies have a range of temperaments that are present from early on
  • Most parents play games instinctively because babies have an amazing way of getting adults to do stupid things that benefit everyone – it makes them laugh, but it is a bonding experience too
  • The first way to get babies to laugh is through touch – tickling has deep evolutionary roots that come from being a mammal (partly related to grooming – a vital function that is also pleasurable), and it stimulates different nerve endings, which we normally react to with laughter
  • The anticipation of the tickle is also up there on the laughter list – also known as ‘the first joke humans ever made’ (i.e. going to tickle your baby then waiting, and never quite getting to the point of tickling)
  • Babies laugh when they see themselves in a mirror — as they don’t recognise themselves until they are at least 18 months old so it is believed that the mirroring of expressions breaks natural social conventions (of turn-taking), and babies find this funny
  • Babies find bath-time funny, again linked to the supervising adult’s undivided attention, but also down to sensory pleasure. Water is warm and womb-like, and they also get pleasure from simple, elemental feelings and sensations – the feel of being alive
  • Peek-a-boo tops the worldwide list of laughter-making games, and apparently it works because it is intensely interactive and also a game that can develop over time (which young baby’s have no concept of so the “coming back” is a happy shock) and as they get older the anticipation builds (as with the tickling).
  • Parents overwhelmingly reported that dolls and puppets were their baby’s funniest toys as babies seem to understand at some deep level that their toys are not real beings, but are still able to have a degree of empathy with them and they also seem to find the incongruity of an animal or inanimate toy behaving in a human fashion very amusing
  • The shaking of a rattle can bring laughter either as a triumphant “I have made this happen” or because there is a pleasing noise or sensation that is new to them

To finish on a quote from the great Dr Addyman himself, who is now personally funding the project: ” Laughter is foremost a social thing. You laugh in company, so it is not necessarily what you are doing, but the fact you are present with your baby that’s important — that is why they are happy.”

Parents interested in helping the research should visit babylaughter.net.

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