I bet you can’t think of anything more smile-making than a baby smile. It makes you smile; it warms your heart; it makes you forget about worries and strife. As a pediatrician I get to see baby smiles every day. I’m spoiled and sometimes forget how life affirming it is, but then I see those beautiful ear to ear grins and it always makes me smile both outside and in.
How do baby smiles start? Babies don’t smile right away but I always tell my new parents at their baby’s two month visit that things are going to get a lot more fun from now on. Let’s face it, the first two months are pretty tough: sleepless nights, constant feeding, completely mysterious crying. I sometimes refer to it as the “crying, sleeping, pooping, growing phase.” Sometimes you get a random smile, sometimes they focus on you, but then some distant neuron doesn’t fire quite right and they’re looking off at some random spot on the wall. Don’t be fooled. You may not see it, but millions of neurons are connecting, talking to each other, taking control.
It’s mind boggling how complicated it all is. Neurons have to make the right connections to other neurons; different neurons have to connect to muscles; electrical discharges change calcium concentrations in muscle fibers, and so on and so on. Then those muscles have to be coordinated in order for anything to actually move. The whole process is something you learn in medical school and makes you start believing in a higher power. How could all this work? There are so many things that need to happen or could go wrong and yet, it almost always happens perfectly.
At first, your baby knows how to cry (no kidding !), swallow, breath, etc, but when born, it can’t yet truly smile. Yes, sometimes they smile when they’re sleeping, or farting, or who knows what, but true social smiling takes some time. It’s a natural process, but you are very important to this working out right. Your holding them, your talking to them, your touch, your feel….all of this is important (and they can’t get this from an iPhone….just sayin’!). You can’t spoil them at this age, but if you don’t talk to, hold, rock, and yes, smile at your child it’s going to slow this wonderous process.
It’s a social thing. It’s what makes us human. There’s now evidence that smiling is not uniquely human, but so what. It’s so important to us as a species that it happens very quickly. It’s definitely a survival technique for babies because it helps mom and dad bond so that they want to take care of them. But it is so much more than that as we all know. And after those first two or three months of talking and cooing and smiling with no real response, all of a sudden they break into an ear to ear smile and your heart just melts. There is no way you can resist that.
Yes, babies are unknowingly looking out for themselves, but when you see that glorious baby smile you know they’re looking after you too.