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When Do Babies Start Smiling? Understanding Your Baby's Smiles

Updated: Mar 1

A baby grins while lying on their back

The initial months of your infant's life are full of moments that give a peek into their emerging personality. Among these events, seeing your baby smile for the first time is particularly significant because it is a critical step in their development, as well as an expression of joy.

This article explores the different types of baby smiles and provides guidance for parents whose baby has not yet smiled.

In this article:

Early smiles

Reflex smiles

In the first few weeks of your newborn's life, you might observe quick, seemingly random smiles. This is referred to as a reflex smile (or spontaneous smile) and it shows that your baby's developing brain is activating their facial muscles. In fact, a similar reflex causes your newborn to jerk their arms and legs randomly as their brain experiments with those muscles.

The physical ability to smile is innate, not a learned behavior. In fact, studies have shown that newborns can actually smile from birth, or even while still in the womb.

A 3-D ultrasound showing a baby smiling

Reflex smiles are definitely cute, but they are not an expression of emotion or a reaction to any external stimuli, so they are not considered a "true" smile for purposes of your baby's development.

Sleep smiles

There are few things cuter than a baby smiling in their sleep. These drowsy grins, which may accompany little noises and other facial movements, often occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep—a phase tied to active processing of awake experiences and dream activity.

A baby smiles while sleeping

Sleep smiles also occur during non-REM sleep and might be a sign that your baby feels especially comfy (for example if they are passing gas or peeing!).

Although they are involuntary, sleep smiles offer some insight into your baby's newfound sensory experiences.

The social smile

The reflex and sleep smiles common in the early weeks transition into more intentional expressions as a baby's muscular and neurological systems develop.

Between 6 and 12 weeks of age, on average, most babies enter a new phase of social smiles (also called a reciprocal or true smile). These are your baby's first smiles directed at others.

Unlike a reflexive smile, these beaming responses are purposeful and typically occur when a baby is given attention, whether facial expressions, voice, or touch.

A mother and baby smile while touching noses

Newborn reflex smiles vs. baby social smiles

You can distinguish real smiles from reflexes by their context and duration.

Reflex smiles tend to occur randomly, often when a newborn baby is asleep, and are usually brief.

On the other hand, a real smile is a deliberate reaction to an external stimulus, such as seeing a parent's face or hearing a familiar voice.

Generally, the same stimuli will consistently result in a social smile and the smile may last as long as the stimulus is present.

The significance of social smiles

1. Visual and cognitive development

Social smiles are a sign of your baby's visual and cognitive development. Babies smile because they are able to recognize and respond to familiar faces, which demonstrates their growing visual and cognitive abilities.

As infants grow older, their vision grows sharper and they can see objects further away. This means that they become more aware of their surroundings and are able to take in more information, including recognizing familiar faces.

When an infant smiles at someone they know, it shows that they are able to not only see but also identify and respond to important people in their lives.

A mother, father, and baby smiling at each other

2. Social and emotional development

Reciprocal smiles are also a crucial stage in your little one's social and emotional development. They show that your baby can understand and respond to social cues.

As your baby develops, their smiles will become even more nuanced as they learn to use their expressions to communicate and express emotions. Smiling can also be used as a coping mechanism for toddlers, helping them regulate their emotions during challenging situations.

These early smiles also play a crucial role in the bond between parents and infants. The joy and love that parents feel when their baby smiles at them can strengthen their mutual attachment.

As babies grow into children, their smiles also serve a social function as they learn to use their smiles to make friends and establish relationships with others outside of their family.

3. Emerging communication skills

Smiling is also an early form of communication for infants. Along with other nonverbal communication such as vocalizations and gestures, it allows them to express their emotions and needs, even before they are able to use words.

Babies may smile when they are happy or content, but they may also smile when they are hungry or in need of attention.

Smiles as a reciprocal form of communication are important for establishing a bond between the infant and their caregiver.

As infants continue to develop, their smiles become more intentional and meaningful. They may "smile talk" at specific people or in response to certain stimuli. This is just the beginning of their interactions with their world!

Encouraging your baby to smile

Ways to encourage baby smiles include:

1. Smile at your baby! They'll respond to your happy face and eventually you'll be "smile talking" to each other.

2. Talk to your baby throughout the day and encourage other caregivers to do the same. Make sure to pause your talking to give your baby a chance to respond with a smile, sound, or wiggle.

3. Have plenty of face-to-face interactions and frequently look into your baby's eyes. This will help to strengthen your bond.

4. Be silly with your baby! Funny faces and sounds, tickles, and silly songs may prompt a smile.

A baby smiles while a parent's hands touch their belly

Be consistent with these tips throughout the day, but don't overstimulate your baby. If they start looking away or crying, they may need a mental break.

When to consult with a doctor

Babies develop at their own pace, so don't worry too much if your baby doesn't smile during the first few months. However, it's worth consulting with your pediatrician in the following cases.

1. Your baby isn't smiling by 3 months

If your baby hasn't shown their first real smile by 3 months, you should mention it to their doctor. This does not necessarily mean that something is wrong—some babies just need a few extra weeks to develop their first smiles.

However, in some cases, delayed smiling might be the result of a developmental delay, sensory processing issue, or vision problem. Identifying an underlying concern as early as possible is crucial to obtaining early intervention and getting your child any necessary help to support their development.

2. Your baby doesn't make eye contact by 6 months

Once your baby starts smiling, you may notice that they don't look directly into your eyes. This doesn't automatically mean that there is an issue with their social development. Some babies simply find prolonged eye contact to be overwhelming at first.

As they continue to practice their social smile, your baby will likely be able to make eye contact for longer periods. However, if your baby doesn't hold your gaze by 6 months of age, you should consult with your doctor.

The Takeaway

As a parent, savor these early smiles for the marvels they are—the products of complex neurological changes and evidence of the expressive little individual who is learning to navigate their world. Your love and affection are the fuel that powers every grin.

So keep encouraging your baby to smile and continue to nurture their emotional and social growth through joyful interactions. These early efforts will help your child grow into a happy, confident, and socially aware person.

Bio of Dr. Reba Troxler


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