There’s probably not much more in this world cuter than a laughing baby. One of the first things parents, or any adult for that matter, try to do with a baby is make him or her coo, giggle, or laugh. But is there a time when it becomes too much for a baby? Is it bad for a baby to laugh too much?
Yes, it is bad for babies to laugh too much. Babies’ laughter is a social response, whether reflexive or learned. Yet, just like with most things, laughing can be taken to a detrimental extreme. Knowing where the line is drawn between a positive and overwhelming reaction is key.
As a teacher, mom, and grandma, I’m keenly interested in children, and babies in particular. My undergraduate major was in human learning and development, and my graduate work continued a focus on child studies. With that experience, as well as more recent practical research, I’ve been able to learn more about what makes babies and children laugh, and am happy to share that with you, specifically when it can be ‘too much’.
- 1 Why do babies laugh?
- 2 Misconceptions about Babies Laughing
- 3 What’s the Harm of Babies Laughing Too Much?
- 4 Punchline-Wrapping Up Babies Laughing Too Much
Why do babies laugh?
Although laughter has been documented in infant milestone development, it may surprise you that it hasn’t been the subject of much research, where infants are concerned. Therefore, there are limitations to what we know, though developmental psychologist, Caspar Addyman, is doing what he can to change that. His recent research and studies have focused primarily on baby laughter and all that entails.
One thing that has been documented prior to Addyman is from a 1972 study; this study by L. Alan Sroufe and Jane Piccard Wunsch confirmed that tactile and auditory stimuli is what elicits laughter from very young infants, whereas it’s the more visual and social stimuli that evokes laughter as babies grow closer to the one year mark.
This is particularly interesting to me because you can see how toymakers use this knowledge. Toys for early infants focus on lights, sounds, and feel while toys for older infants are more interactive. For example, the Baby Einstein products like the Take Along Tunes Musical Toy is designed to engage a three-month-old with its songs, flashes of color, and buttons.
There are different reasons why babies laugh, so let’s look at this a bit closer. Before we do, however, I think it’s also important to clearly define ‘baby’ age. For this article, we’ll consider one year and under as ‘baby’ and above that is what we’d call a ‘toddler’. (I’ve written about how to make a toddler laugh in another article, if you’d like to take a moment and check that out.)
Newborn Coos to Hysterical Laughing
Almost as soon as parents bring a baby home from the hospital, they’ll try to make him or her smile and laugh. However, seasoned parents know that’s not a reasonable expectation. Nevertheless, it’s a common practice.
Doctors and specialists have developed guidelines for parents of what to expect as their baby grows; after all, one of the greatest concerns for any parent is their child’s health and well-being. These guidelines focus on milestones or benchmarks.
Milestone: “Developmental milestones are behaviors or physical skills seen in infants and children as they grow and develop. Rolling over, crawling, walking, and talking are all considered milestones. The milestones are different for each age range.” Source: MedlinePlus
The first hint of laughter comes when a baby begins to smile. This happens sometime in the third month of a baby’s life. Along with little smiles, babies may coo, gurgle, or make light laughing sounds. Contrary to the zeal of parents, this isn’t true laughter. Instead this is an expression to something physical such as gas, itchiness, or some other reflexive cause.
Laughing does show up developmentally around 4-5 months of age for most infants. Babies will babble and make other sounds as they become aware of that ability, as well as giggle and laugh, at this time, according to WebMD. Like the 1972 aforementioned study, babies first laugh due to concrete or physical stimuli like bouncing or tickling and then later, context comes into play like doing something unusual such as putting a bowl on your head or falling down.
Hysterical laughter is when a baby laughs uncontrollably. This may seem cute and even funny for the adults when it first occurs, but soon enough, it can get way out of hand.
Babies who laugh hysterically aren’t usually doing this because of their great sense of humor, or because dad is such a funny comedian. Instead, the baby has reached a point of over stimulation and it can quickly turn harmful, or at the least, yucky, by resulting in crying, snot, coughing, and vomiting. Yeah, I did say ‘yucky’ for a reason! We’ll look more at the ramifications of hysterical laughter in a later section.
There is a strong social connection to laughter, too. Let’s consider that in the next section.
Social Effect of Laughter
Even though it’s been documented that children will laugh from tickles and silly behavior, studies have determined a social factor for infants laughter (and laughter in general). A 2018 study in Social and Personality Psychology Compass by psychologists, Adrienne Wood and Paula Niedenthal, identifies three social aspects to laughter. Those are to:
- Reward the behavior of others: this reinforces the ongoing interaction
- Ease social tension: this is to alleviate fear and threat, and to signal cooperation or alliance
- Enforce social norms: this form of laughter establishes status or superiority and/or corrects undesirable behavior
Now it’s certainly not to say these things are pre-meditated by a four-month-old, or even a one-year-old, for that matter. However, babies do respond with laughter according to the social reaction they’re given.
If you are playing peek a boo with a baby and respond with smiling and laughter, that will elicit smiling and laughter- a social reward. If you respond with growls and frowns instead, after a possible initial laugh from a baby, he or she will quickly turn to crying or frowning because of the social connection.
Misconceptions about Babies Laughing
One of the hardest things to tell a parent is that they’ve misunderstood their child’s reason for laughter. Parents commonly feel that they know their child better than anyone else, and in a way, that is true. However, when it comes to human growth and development, which involves laughter, parents often get it wrong.
Sometimes, it’s simply about facts rather than feelings.
Side Note By the way, Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire and a popular, albeit controversial conservative writer and speaker, is well-known for a book called Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings, easily found on Amazon. It’s not specific to our article’s topic here, but I recommend this book for conservatives and non-conservatives alike for it’s approach to life’s questions. Sometimes, it’s simply about facts rather than feelings, and that is connected to our article’s topic.
Let’s continue on to common misconceptions parents (and other adults) have about baby’s laughter and what that means.
Babies Understand the Humor (Misconception #1)
Probably one of the most popular misconceptions about babies’ laughter is that they get the joke. That is to say, parents/adults think that because the baby laughs, he or she understands what’s happening and why it’s so darn funny.
Babies don’t laugh because they have a sense of humor.
A four-month-old will likely laugh when you surprise him or her playing peek a boo. He or she doesn’t understand that surprises are funny. Likewise when a 9-month-old laughs because daddy puts a banana on top of his head it’s not because the 9-month-old ‘gets it.’
The out of the ordinary, breaking of normal patterns, and things that don’t fit can cause a baby to question. This questioning can come in the form of laughter to our ears, but it actually signifies and uneasiness and a search for confirmation that ‘everything is okay’.
Only as children grow older will they have the cognitive ability to understand the funny behind the joke or silly pratfall. So in the meantime, enjoy the laughs but don’t assign too much meaning behind it.
Babies Laugh Because They Are Happy (Misconception #2)
Another common misunderstanding about babies laughing is that it means they are happy. I mean, this one makes sense, right? If you see a photo of a baby smiling and laughing, or even a video clip where we can see AND hear it, we think we should equate those expressions with happiness. However, that’s not quite accurate.
Babies may be just as happy while spitting, waving their arms, or exploring the taste of the nearest thing they can commandeer.
Babies (remember we’re looking at infants to age one) laugh mostly as a reaction to stimuli. Sometimes, it is a pleasurable stimuli like tickling or a belly raspberry that gets a baby giggling. Other times, they are laughing because of the surprise factor. Mary Rothbart, child psychologist, noted this as a ‘arousal-safety phenomenon’ where babies initially react with laughter as they are figuring out if the action is safe or not.
Other reasons babies may seem happy, resulting in laughter, is because they realize they are getting positive attention from those people around them through that behavior-their laughter. Babies naturally want attention; it gets them food and comfort, so when they get warmth, praise, and so on by laughing, they’ll do it even more. And that’s not necessarily bad; just realize it for what it is.
Babies are infinitely more valuable than the family pet, but cognitively speaking, they can be on similar levels. House cats for instance come from wild felines that are expert hunters. These same cats in a barn become any nearby field mouse or rat’s worst nightmare. Yet my cat has learned that rolling on the floor, meowing, and rubbing against certain people’s legs gets her food.
Babies and pets will both have these similar learned responses.
Laughing Babies Are Spoiled (Misconception #3)
Another misconception some have, maybe more popular with an authoritative parenting proponent, is that laughing babies are spoiled. In this mindset, babies laugh because they get whatever they want. Of course, as mentioned above, this is partly true. Babies often laugh because they experience it gets them attention, comfort, a favorite toy, etcetera.
However, this does not mean babies are spoiled, so they laugh.
What is a spoiled baby, anyway? A spoiled baby is thought to be one whose parent jumps up at every whim to soothe him; a baby who is always carried or picked up. A spoiled baby evokes images of lavish toys, baby ‘things’, and doted on. However, David Mrazek, M.D. chairman of psychiatry and psychology at the Mayo Clinic, says “during the first six months, it’s really impossible to spoil a child.”
So rest assured, if your baby laughs, it is not a sign of indulgence and being spoiled!
Babies Laughter Means Healthy Babies (Misconception #4)
Now, another misunderstanding or misaligned correlation is that laughing babies are healthy babies. In some ways, we can see how this came about. After all, a baby who is feverish and in pain is not likely to laugh. But this example doesn’t make the flip side true, either.
I’ve already listed many reasons babies laugh. Babies laugh from surprises. Babies laugh as a social connection. Babies laugh to get attention. However, just because a baby laughs while playing peek a boo or at Daddy modeling a spaghetti necklace, it doesn’t mean that the baby is healthy…unfortunately.
To be perfectly clear about it, parents should not rely on laughter as a sign of health.
Instead, parents should use the guidelines provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics for meeting developmental milestones, as well as for attending well-baby check ups, in order to monitor their baby’s growth and health status. Even though as parents we can often ‘see’ if our child is healthy by his or her behavior and what we observe, it is not full proof. It’s critical for parents to seek professional support for their baby’s well-being no matter if their baby laughs a lot.
Pediatricians and specialists have the expertise and knowledge to recognize what’s healthy, normal, and appropriate, for babies, seen and unseen.
What’s the Harm of Babies Laughing Too Much?
Anything ‘too much’ is generally harmful, but there are of course degrees of that harm. Too much reading can cause someone to get headaches from eye strain. Too much eating can cause someone to feel bloated and gain weight. Too much working results in a lot of money (more money than ‘too less’ of working) but may cost someone a relationship.
And what constitutes ‘too much’ is also up for debate, regardless of the topic.
For this article, we’ll consider what’s too much laughing for babies and why that’s harmful.
Babies May Develop An Unusual Fear
It can be bad for babies to laugh too much if it causes babies to develop unusual fears. For example, a baby may laugh over and over at someone playing peek a boo (we’ve mentioned peek a boo a lot in this article because peek a boo is a universally popular game to play with infants that spans countries and cultures).
However, eventually even peek a boo can become too much. The baby can start to associate- incorrectly-that surprise factor with other things, and this anticipation can be fearful.
Think about the old toy, Jack-in-the-Box. The toy’s thrill was connected with the ‘surprise’ factor of a clown (Jack) popping up at any moment.
It was often coordinated with a tune, so if you were aware, you might be able to determine just when ‘Jack’ would show. However, also imagine, playing this toy over and over. That could be nightmarish! It’s not a coincidence that this toy is frequently featured in horror movies, either.
Negative Physical Responses From Laughing Too Much
Another example to show how laughing too much is bad for babies is physical. Often you won’t realize that a baby has been laughing too much until you observe a physical demonstration. Some examples of this are:
- Some babies will vomit when they laugh too much.
- Other babies will begin to cry uncontrollably.
- Babies may start coughing and even making choking sounds.
Babies can’t verbalize ‘this isn’t funny’ and can’t tell you, ‘I’m going to vomit if you don’t stop’. In fact, babies don’t really know this to even verbalize it if they could talk. All they know is that their bodies are out-of-control.
And unfortunately, adults aren’t always aware too, that the line of fun has been crossed to overwhelming.
When this happens, you’ll obviously want to halt whatever ‘funny’ tactic had been happening. From tickling to peek a boo to raspberries to pratfalls, any of these can move from healthy play to harmful behavior when taken to extremes.
Punchline-Wrapping Up Babies Laughing Too Much
So let’s recap what was learned: as much as we all love to hear babies laugh, it can be taken to the extremes and be too much for babies.
Babies laugh for many reasons and although research has been able to pinpoint some ideas on the topic, it’s limited. More research in the area of infant laughter would be beneficial because humor is an important part of human development.
For now, enjoy playing with your baby and making him or her laugh, but keep in mind that it is probably more for you than for your baby. They will be just as happy spitting and burping as laughing.
Remember to be cognizant of the fine line of funny!