How Laughter Helps Build Your Relationship With Your Baby

Child laughing- photo by Paul Watt
Category: Bookbug

Make ‘em laugh

It’s way you tell ‘em

Just slip on a banana peel, the world’s at your feet

Smile at a baby of about six months and chances are they’ll smile back. If you start laughing, clowning around and pulling funny faces then, if you’re Mum or Dad, your baby will probably have learned that this is meant to be funny behaviour and they’ll start to laugh.

Humour works on messing up what we know to be the normal way of the world within the safety of social connections we’re sure of. Which explains why if you’re less well known and your attempts at comedy don’t match a baby’s expectations, there’s a chance your efforts might result in tears. Sometimes we laugh when we’re not sure about something, sometimes if it scares us, and the same is true for babies.

Researchers have long been interested in how babies make sense of the world around them and recently attention has turned again to the serious business of infant humour.

Babies and toddlers can tease, as anyone who’s spent time in their company will know.

We know that babies arrive ready to build relationship with other people. Copying adults’ actions, minutes after birth babies get straight to the business of building a picture of what is ‘normal’. Adults signal what’s strange and silly by laughing or speaking in a more exaggerated dramatic voice, showing that blowing a raspberry, wearing a funny hat or making the wrong sound for an animal in a picture book is absurd and funny.

By asking parents to categorise and document the kinds of laughter and jokes they share with their very young children (at times when researchers are not present and so less likely to put a damper on the fun), researchers have built a picture of the different ways in which very young children learn about humour and take part in it.

You can read more about this in two briefing papers:

Dr Elena Hoicka’s paper on humour and pretending in children under three and Suzanne Zeedyk has a great overview here.

At five months, a baby can have such a strong idea of what is normal and what is absurd that it can laugh even at a stranger wearing a clown’s nose. Later, say around nine months, that baby might provoke laughter by creating some absurdity of their own – a breakfast bowl on their head, or a silly noise. Babies and toddlers can tease, as anyone who’s spent time in their company will know. They might offer an object and then quickly pull it away, smiling and laughing at their trickery.

There are many ways of thinking about babies’ enthusiasm and ability to joke, but what seems to be key is social function. When a baby makes their family laugh they’ve learnt what their brother, sister or granny will find funny. They need to have learned about the cultural conventions around them and have confidence in their ability to hold an audience and produce laughter in others. Success with such comedy signals success in developing relationships and making emotional connections. Laughing is simply another way to connect emotionally and socially. And it does us good. 

But what if the joke is not good enough? Even if others are laughing, your baby might just not find your joke funny. Don’t worry. Babies (like adults) know when a polite laugh is needed, and they have one to hand. Parents reported to researchers that babies can choose to be part of the social experience of sharing humour even when they don’t find the joke funny and have a ‘social’ laugh for just those occasions.

If your child is wearing out their social laugh and you’re a bit down in the dumps, then where better to turn than to books?

Books to make you laugh

Picture books that show normal, everyday people or things being used in absurd ways are good for sharing laughter. Babies and toddlers will be entertained by how you react to books. Making animal sounds or actions and laughing yourself, or playing peekabo with simple flap books should be a good start at getting the humour going. Reacting with an encouraging laugh at your baby’s effort to imitate your comedy will inspire them to repeat their joke.




Sarah Burton

Sarah is the Early Years Programme Development Manager (Maternity cover).