Parents obsess over when their baby will smile for the first time, and once they start, there's nothing moms and dads won't do to keep them grinning. Seriously, is there anything better in the world than a smiling baby? And while some babies are naturally more smiley than others (much like people in general), it's generally not too difficult to get a good chuckle out of your little one. But what does it mean if your baby is smiling less than you think he should be?
Chances are, there's nothing to worry about if your little one is displaying a less bubbly side — particularly if that's just part of his personality. "Parents of serious babies are usually worried their child will grow up to be not as happy as other babies, but this is usually not the case, and is quite normal," NYC family psychologist Kathryn Smerling, PhD LCSW, tells Romper.
My daughter was one of these babies, particularly in public: Strangers would wave and coo at her, and she would reward them with a deadpan glare. (Call it "resting baby face.") Sixteen years later, she's been called "aloof" and "mysterious," though people who know her well know she's super warm and has a great sense of humor. Back then, though, I worried: Was she unhappy? Most likely not, according to Smerling.
"Some babies show that they're amused at something or in a good mood by simply watching intently, or listening," she says.
If you've got one of these less outwardly cheerful types on your hands, Smerling explains that subtle clues can tip you off to your baby's mood: Their eyes might dilate, or they might wiggle their toes or wave their hands. And, as was the case with my daughter, Smerling points out that "some babies are also more comfortable smiling at home and smile a lot less around strangers or in the outside world."
"This is normal," she adds. "Those babies are just slow to respond to new environments."
But what if your baby started out smiling 24/7 and seems to be growing less ebullient as of late? It could just be that he's growing more discerning with age. As an article in Parents explained, at around 4 months of age, babies might become less generous with their smiles. Experts call this "selective social smiling" — and while it probably means that your little one is less likely to flash a big gummy grin at the lady behind you in line at the grocery store, it doesn't mean he's any less happy than usual.
It could be, too, that your baby is spending more time engaged in solo activities, such as playing with toys as you watch from a few feet away. Somewhere between the ages of 6 weeks and 6 months, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, baby smiles become "increasingly responsive to social cues," which results in fewer smiles when they're alone. (Well, not that you ever leave your baby "alone," technically, but you get the idea.) The more independent your baby gets, the less time you'll spend directly entertaining him (thereby inducing a steady stream of smiles).
Of course, as with so many other baby behavior quirks, there are occasionally instances when a baby's lack of smiles is a symptom of an underlying issue. As a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found, infants who were later diagnosed with autism smiled less often by the age of 1 than those who did not develop the disorder. So if you're concerned about your baby's smiling habits, it's definitely worth bringing up with your doctor.
Assuming your little one is developing normally, however, just take these changes in stride — and put on a happy face, advises Smerling.
"It’s also so important for parents to smile back at their babies," she says.
"Leaning into your baby will help her smile faster. While it may get tiresome after a while for babies that seem to smile constantly, it’s critical for their social and emotional development."
So get ready to say cheese!
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.