Giggles & Gurgles…

Can you teach your baby a sense of humour?

By Anchen Verster – Registered nurse, midwife, SA Certified Perinatal Educator – SACPE, wife, mother to 4 children including a set of twins

I heard peals of laughter coming from the kitchen. My husband was entertaining our four children at the dinner table. He was creating successions of non-sensical rhyming words to which they responded with giggles adding their own rendition of these made-up words.

“Wigga, wagga, wooga”; “ Plieps, ploeps, plups!”

The youngest, 12 months at the time, joined in in the hilarity. I assume he was unaware of the ridiculousness of the words, but laughed as if fully comprehending their game. I must admit it made me laugh too.

One of the first major milestones in an infant’s life is the 6-week smile (more-or less 6 weeks). It provides the much-needed motivation for exhausted parents to persevere in this whirlwind of tasks and sleep deprivation. Oh how a smile from a tiny little body gives us the fuel to keep going! It also stimulates more interaction and conversation from us (the parents) that in turn reinforces the behaviour of our infant. This smile eventually develops into giggles or laughs at around 4 months. The question is, can we develop this ability to laugh at funny things or is it genetic characteristics that determine what our little ones find humourous? Is it nature or nurture or a combination of both? If there is a nurture component can we develop this skill?

There is some documentation of psychological investigation done into the constructs of humour as far back as 1879. Some theorists studied links between humour and personality. They theorized that if humour were linked to personality it would be easier to understand it. For example an extrovert personality is more likely to laugh at a joke than an introvert personality. But does that mean that the extrovert finds the joke funnier or are their internal physiological responses similar but displayed differently? I remember going to secondary school with a chap who was a constant source of entertainment. In fact when I met his family they were a laugh a minute. Was there some gene that predisposed this family to greater enjoyment of humour or was it cultivated in their family life? Does their family cope better with the challenges of life because of their ability to make light of the moment? Does that family in general have a healthier immune system? These kinds of questions, if answered, may motivate our desire to make silly faces and hide behind strange objects in front of our infant in an effort to develop this trait.

In the annals of psychological study and its implications for life, humour wasn’t exactly top of the study list as there were so many more pressing issues that required investigation with seemingly greater significance to the human condition. It’s also easier to study humour in older children because infants cannot verbalize their thoughts and they are thus more difficult to measure response.

A study on the link between infant humour perception (between 3 and 6 months) and attachment at 12 months describes the timetable of humour development as such:

Social Smiling 5-9 weeks
Laughter in response to Physical Stimulation 3 months
Laughter in response to Social Games 5 months
Laughter in response to Visual Events 7-9 months
Humour Creation 9-11 months
Clowning (Creating absurd events) 10 months

This is what we can roughly be expecting from our infants but the frequency of its use may vary according to your child’s personality or how you cultivate and reinforce these bahaviours.

Babies look to their parents to get emotional reinforcement. This is clear at 8 months when an infant might look at their parents’ facial expression when someone other than mother/father wants to pick them up. They’re basically looking for a clear signal, which will inform what their response should be. So let’s say Auntie Sue comes to meet your baby of 9 months. She puts out her arms to take him from you. Your baby looks at you and you say with a big you smile;

“Give Aunty Dot a big hug, say ‘hello’. Auntie Dot has come to visit you”.

Your infant will more likely feel safer about going to Auntie Dot. And so it is with infants and humour. Theorists describe how our infants learn from our bahaviour when interpreting ridiculous or humourous situations. Your baby’s personality may determine whether he finds this interaction more or less anxiety provoking. You however have the ability to “buffer” these responses by giving the green light to the experience as he watches and listens to your interpretation of the situation. Assessing the safety of situations and responding to funny situations is similar.

Dr. Mireault describes it in the following way after studying how infants between the ages of 6 and 12 months learn humour from their parents:

“Humour might seem like a frivolous topic, but it provides a vehicle for understanding infant development, in this case the development of social referencing. This study shows that 6-month-olds pay attention to ‘unsolicited emotional advice’ from parents during ambiguous situations that might be funny. Our findings suggest that 6-month-olds are starting to see parents as a source of emotional information, and this is likely to be an important step on the way to being able to obtain emotional advice from parents when this is needed, which we know babies do at 8 months. By 12 months, babies seem to have had just enough life experience to make up their own minds – at least about what is absurdly funny.”

Other researchers point out that interaction between parents and their infants that are humourous boosts the development of “satisfying relationship” between them and potentially has a positive effect on the establishment of other healthy relationships into adulthood. Humour is also linked with better physical and psychological health. Laughter can have a positive impact on the immune system.

It stands to reason then that cultivating the ability to enjoy humour both by modeling it and providing opportunity is beneficial for our infants and us. Life is serious. As I write this I’m reflecting on how little fun I have with my children and how seldom I provide time for silliness. The days are often filled with rushing and reprimanding. My children would certainly benefit from seeing me laugh a bit more and making them laugh a bit more.

Cultivating humour in your infant…

Intuitively we practice eliciting laughter prior to its appearance in our infants. Following the birth of your baby you will find yourself staring at, talking to and smiling at him or her. The same applies for social games like “peek-a-boo” and then just downright being silly to illicit a response. Take time to interact face-to-face with your baby. Interact during their quiet alert phases not times when they are hungry or tired. Keep the “speed” of your interaction suitable for the age of your baby. Like a dog shaking water from his coat, that kind of fast interaction is too much for an infant between 0 and 2 months. They are likely to find it over stimulating and cease making eye contact with you or responding to your game. As they mature, so you can “speed” up the interaction. One researcher described the interaction as needing to be “exciting but not overwhelming”.

Allow your baby to be in your presence when you are interacting positively with other adults and children. This will enable opportunity to watch your response to situations and see when you laugh.

At times a sudden loud laugh will scare or confuse an infant. When this happens, reinforce the positive nature of the situation by continuing to smile but acknowledging your baby’s response. Often parents mirror their baby’s response and so reinforce a negative reaction. For example someone in the house laughs loudly and baby’s bottom lip quivers and he starts crying. If you mirror that facial expression and talk in a “oh no” tone of voice you’re saying “that was a horrible scary laugh, you should be crying”. Alternatively you can acknowledge the fear, comfort the baby with words like “daddy is laughing, look at his big smile” and continue smiling yourself. Soon he will become accustomed to the laugh and find it exciting.

Games like peek-a-boo will come spontaneously. Silly songs while sitting on your knee are good at creating opportunity for giggles. These can be progressed to songs with movement. I remember my mother singing a song while her niece bounced on her knee like a galloping horse.

“Ride away, ride away horsy will ride,

She’ll have a sweet dolly tucked by her side;

She’ll have a teddy, tucked to her other and,

Off she will ride to see her grandmother” 

My mother would pretend to tuck the dolly and the teddy under the baby’s arm, which of course was ticklish. At the point of “grandmother” her knees would drop giving the baby a surprise bump, which was followed by either big smiles or a delighted “more, more!” The element of excitement and surprise is always a winner as long as it’s not overwhelming. Researchers talk about “clowning” which might be described as silly antics, which is the next stage in humour development. Infants perceive this as funny (no longer scary) from early on but can begin to create these antics from around 10 months.

“The pleasure of realizing that something that might otherwise be considered threatening and scary is in fact fun and safe seems to be a key to early humor.” (Cunningham)

Read to your infant from early on so that he/she can begin to develop the pleasure of imagination. You can also use this opportunity to make sound effects and different voices that will pique their interest and most likely stimulate some laughter! Get used to laughing at yourself and allowing them to laugh at you. Infants love watching silliness in adults- especially their parents. Very especially their Dads!

Cultivating humour in your young child…

Cultivating humour in your little one older than one year is a ‘follow-on’ of what you’ve been doing during the

First 12 months. The appreciation of silly games grows. I remember sitting with friends recording different laughs and then listening to it over and over again.

Cunningham describes humour development and appreciation as part of ‘play development’. It fits into the constructs of the ‘make believe’ world. It stands to reason then that illicit quantities of media, that might limit this creativity, should be limited. Television, IPad and gaming should be controlled and limited. If possible avoid introducing it at all before the age of two. Once you have introduced it, it becomes very difficult to control. Opportunity for mobilizing imaginative play should be encouraged. Part of this means not always providing the source of entertainment for your child. Allow them to explore and develop this pleasure without always depending on you. Provide plenty of time for ‘free’ play. Be very careful of ‘hyper-scheduling’ and too many extra mural activities. A lack of balance here robs your family of time to develop creative play and ‘humour hunting’. Encourage their creativity by providing positive affirmation. Keep empty boxes for house or fort construction and old clothes for dress-up play. The development of this imaginative play will benefit the development of humour. Although the play itself doesn’t necessarily equal laughter, learning the ability to create ‘play scenarios’ will provide a helpful foundation for humour development.

Create time for humour enjoyment together. Use ‘dead’ time like travelling in the car, potty time or bath time. Plan silly games and joke telling at the dinner table. Between roughly the ages of 5 and 8 children love knock-knock jokes. Although these might not hit the spot for your own sense of humour, watching theirs will bring great pleasure.

Plenty of fun with our children may make them more cooperative to correction. I often think that if I transcribed a days interaction with my children it would be a majority of statements and commands like “hurry up, we’re late”; “how many times have I told you to put your jersey on”; “don’t do that to your brother”. I wonder if they would be more responsive to correction if they had a few minutes of sidesplitting giggles with me during the day? Silly songs or reading storybooks backwards are great ways to induce a laugh. I find that if I have some good laughs with my children I feel more satisfied with my parenting during that period. Now that I know it has significant benefit for them and I can influence it, all the more reason to work at it

A good laugh is sunshine in the house (William Thackeray)

A good laugh heals a lot of hurts — Madeleine L’Engle

A good laugh is a mighty good thing, a rather too scarce a good thing — Herman Melville

A smile is a curve that sets everything straight — Phyllis Diller

A smile starts on the lips, a grin spreads to the eyes, a chuckle comes from the belly; but a good laugh bursts forth from the soul, overflows, and bubbles all around — Carolyn Birmingham

A well-balanced person is one who finds both sides of an issue laughable — Herbert Procknow

Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand — Mark Twain

Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine — Lord Byron

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