Is there anything in the world better than a baby’s smile? If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an adorable infant smile, then you know that few things are as wonderful and heartwarming.
Usually, when we’re interacting with babies, getting that smile is the goal. We make funny faces, laugh, make silly sounds, and, of course, smile at them.
It’s long been known that babies smile in reaction to stimuli. They smile when they see a person or object they like. It’s long been thought that babies only smile as a response to external stimuli.
But a cutting edge study has now revealed that babies actually smile on their own, to get a reaction from us!
Communicating Through Smiles
Babies don’t have many ways to effectively communicate with the people taking care of them. In their first couple of months, the only communication method they have is crying.
But once babies learn social smiles and start to babble – usually between three and four months – their ability to communicate drastically increases. They quickly learn that smiling and babbling is a way to get the attention of people they love. And they quickly learn that the people who care for them will smile back!
So, they begin to use smiles as a form of communication. It turns out that babies actually smile both as a response to someone else’s smile and to elicit smiles from people.
Since babies learn through experience that people who smile love them, they use their own smiles to get people to smile back at them. This is their way of confirming that someone cares for them.
How Babies Use Their Smiles To Communicate
Babies are actually pretty smart about using their smiles. This study found that babies will wait until someone is looking at them to smile when they’re trying to elicit a smile.
Babies don’t smile much when someone isn’t looking at them. But when someone is looking at them, babies will flash a smile to see whether or not that someone will smile back. When that someone does smile back, baby smiles back too, creating a “conversation” between baby and adult.
The study also found that babies only respond by smiling when the smile is directed at them. If an adult is smiling in the baby’s presence but not at the baby, the baby will wait until the smile is directed at them to smile back.
These findings show that baby smiles definitely aren’t random and are, in fact, a form of conversation between babies and caregivers. Since we can’t read baby minds (much to every parent’s chagrin) we’ll never know the thought process that precedes these smiles.
But we do know that these smiles are some of the earliest forms of back and forth communication between babies and caregivers.
Using Robots To Study Baby Behavior
How did researchers study baby behavior around smiling? They started by watching lots of babies, of course!
They specifically looked for the circumstances when babies smiled. These observations led them to hypothesize that babies were not only smiling in response to caregiver smiles, but also eliciting smiles from their caregivers by smiling.
To confirm their hypothesis, the researchers needed to replicate the results on a larger scale. But instead of watching more babies, they used the data from what they’d observed of baby behavior to program a robot to behave like babies!
The robot’s programming used a predictive model to extrapolate how a baby might respond based on the data from real babies. Volunteers for the study interacted with the robot baby, testing to see when the robot baby would smile.
The robot confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis. Babies do, in fact, use their own smiles to get their caregivers to smile, and they time the smiles based on when their caregivers are paying attention.
So the next time you’re playing with a baby, make sure to return that smile! It’s the best way a baby has to start a conversation with you.
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