Your baby’s first smile is a moment you’ll never forget. But just how early might you see one—and is it a “true” smile? Here’s what to know about your baby’s first smile, including how to encourage more of them 🙂
In this article:
- When do babies start smiling?
- How do I encourage my baby to smile?
- When should I worry about my baby not smiling?
- What comes after smiling for babies?
When do babies start smiling?
When they are 5 to 8 weeks old, you may start to see your baby’s first smiles. Some researchers suggest that these may be early social smiles, but most believe this kind of facial movement is reflexive.
By the time your baby is 2 to 4 months old, they may smile briefly as a social gesture. Social smiles last longer and are generally in response to something—like your touch, your voice, or your smile. With a genuine social smile, your baby’s eyes may light up and they may even wiggle and squeal.
Reflex smiling and smirking
Before your baby’s first social smile, you may notice fleeting expressions that resemble smiles. In a newborn, this type of facial expression may look like a smirk, with one or both corners of their mouth slightly raised. These reflex smiles may occur during naps or after feedings.
Why do babies smile in their sleep?
The adorable smiles your newborn makes in their sleep aren’t actually caused by sweet dreams—those are reflexive smiles, too. During the phase of deeper sleep known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, babies may twitch, make reflexive facial expressions, and even breathe differently. Researchers believe that these smile-like expressions may be your baby’s nervous system and facial muscles learning to coordinate with one another.
RELATED: Is your baby smiling on purpose?
Your baby’s intentional smiles will likely look different from their earlier, reflexive smiles. Social smiles last longer, and you might notice your baby’s mouth turns up and their eyes close a bit. These social smiles are among your baby’s first communications with you. They’re called Duchenne smiles, after the 19th century researcher who mapped the muscles responsible for facial expressions. Your baby may smile when you smile, make eye contact, or talk to them.
One of the reasons social smiling develops at this age is because your baby’s vision is maturing. At around 2 months of age, your baby’s eyes can focus on faces more than they could before. Your baby’s brain is also able to interpret people’s facial features better than even a month ago, which improves their ability to understand expressions.
Smiling at your baby doesn’t just benefit their developing social skills—it prompts a positive emotional response in you as well. Studies show that parents have a strong emotional and physiological reaction to their smiling babies. Seeing your smiling baby activates the part of your brain that controls feel-good emotions.
How do I encourage my baby to smile?
Once you experience those first social smiles from your baby, you won’t be able to get enough of them. There are a few things you can do to encourage those sweet smiles:
Speak to your baby
Research shows that the first social smiles often happen in response to parentese—that gentle, lilting, sing-song voice that seems to come so naturally around babies 🙂 Combining speech and a gentle touch will help engage their attention. It’s in these moments of mutual gaze and communication that the earliest smiles most often emerge.
Engage in face-to-face interactions with your baby when they’re most alert, like right after a nap or a meal. You might try gently singing or stroking their belly as you talk to them. During these sessions, go slow and pause to give your baby a chance to respond. You may get the smile you’re hoping for, or you might get eye contact with excited movement of the hands and feet. These sessions may only last for one to two minutes before your baby signals they need a break by squirming or looking away—and that’s okay.
Pediatric Occupational Therapist Rachel Coley shows how to use The Mirror Card to engage your newborn—and encourage early smiles.
Get social during daily activities
Use bathtime, diaper changes, and feedings to elicit social smiling. For instance, sing your little one a song about what you’re doing, such as, “I’m washing your toes, toes, toes, and now your belly, belly, belly.” If this prompts your baby to glance at you, pause and give them a big smile before you continue.
Smile and make eye contact
Eye contact and nonverbal communication through smiles and cuddles help foster a strong bond between you and your baby, while supporting their development. Researchers find that social signals like eye contact and smiling are associated with improved social learning in babies. As your baby matures, they learn that smiling can help them keep their caregivers’ attention. Even in the earliest months, they’re learning about subtle social interaction.
If you make a funny sound and your baby smiles, you can say, “That silly sound made you smile! Should I do it again?” Repeat it until they lose interest or start to squirm, then take a break.
Practice visual tracking skills
Give your baby practice tracking faces and images with favorite playthings, such as The Mobile, the Simple Black & White Card Set, and the Wooden Book (all from The Looker Play Kit). These playthings help develop your baby’s ability to follow and recognize objects—and favorite faces.
Keep interactions short
Most very young babies enjoy shorter social interactions rather than long periods of play. Try smiling at your baby, having cooing “conversations,” running your fingers lightly across their tummy, or gently tapping their feet together while you softly sing.
When should I worry about my baby not smiling?
If you haven’t seen signs of intentional smiles by 4 months of age, it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s pediatrician. Keep in mind that each baby has their own unique personality, even at just a few months old. Some babies smile more often than others simply by temperament. Keep connecting with animated face-to-face time, imitate your baby’s sounds and expressions, and enjoy each other ❤️
What comes after smiling for babies?
Smiling is just the beginning of your baby’s social and communication skills. After that first social smile, your baby will continue to learn how to engage with you and others through nonverbal interactions. Here are a few developments to look forward to as your baby grows:
- 2 to 6 months: Your baby may smile or show signs of recognition when they see a familiar person.
- 3 to 4 months: Your baby may wiggle, make sounds, and show excitement when you engage with them
- 5 to 9 months: You’ll recognize your baby’s emotions from their facial expressions—for example, you may see their eyebrows go up when they’re surprised or excited, or their forehead furrow when they’re distressed or frustrated.
As your baby grows, they’ll learn to combine those social smiles with coos, laughs and eventually words. You and other caregivers can play a key role here: Your baby will be more motivated to keep interacting if they get a consistent response from you. Engaging with your baby’s early smiles and sounds helps support their social development.
Meet the Experts
Learn more about the Lovevery child development experts who created this story.
Research & Resources
Dondi, M., Messinger, D., Colle, M., Tabasso, A., Simion, F., Barba, B. D., & Fogel, A. (2007). A new perspective on neonatal smiling: Differences between the judgments of expert coders and naive observers. Infancy, 12(3), 235-255.
Gerber, R. J., Wilks, T., & Erdie-Lalena, C. (2011). Developmental milestones 3: social-emotional development. Pediatrics in Review, 32(12), 533-536.
Messinger, D., & Fogel, A. (2007). The interactive development of social smiling. In R. V. Kail (Ed.), Advances in child development and behavior (pp. 327–366). Elsevier Academic Press.
Strathearn, L., Li, J., Fonagy, P., & Montague, P. R. (2008). What’s in a smile? Maternal brain responses to infant facial cues. Pediatrics, 122(1), 40–51.
Wass, S., Whitehorn, M., Haresign, I., Phillips, E., Leong, V. (2020) Interpersonal neural entrainment during early social interaction, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24 (4), 329-342.
0 - 12 Weeks
3 - 4 Months
Is your baby smiling on purpose?
Your baby’s eyes and entire face light up when they smile, sometimes with noises and gestures. Learn how to encourage more social smiles.
0 - 12 Weeks
3 - 4 Months
5 - 6 Months
7 - 8 Months
9 - 10 Months
11 - 12 Months
0 - 12 Months
The complete guide to baby development milestones
We compiled this expert guide to help you know what to expect for your baby's growth and month-by-month development.
5 - 6 Months
Copy your baby to help them learn
Imitation is one of the main ways your baby learns about the world. Read about the link between imitation and learning.