Babies are strange little creatures with all sorts of weird habits. They love chewing on their toes, shaking noisy rattles, and watching mobiles go round and round for long periods of time. Most of these make sense. The noise is new, so they want to hear it, their toes are delicious, and that mobile is pretty fascinating. But some of their habits are just plain creepy — like when they stare into space at nothing and grin. What the heck are they looking at? Can they see something you can't? Why do babies stare at nothing and smile?
Have you ever caught your child sitting in their chair, or just lazing about, staring at empty space and smiling? It's a distressing habit if you're a parent like me who watches entirely too many horror films, and has read entirely too many books wherein the only people who can see the evil creature are children. Thankfully, science tells us that staring at absolutely nothing is a normal part of child development, no matter how creepy it is. Consumer Healthday noted that sometimes babies just look off into the great nothing because their brains are working around the clock, growing and learning new things. They might look disconnected — and smiling about it — but really, there's a lot going on in there.
It seems entirely plausible, and it is science, but my daughter did this all the time. She loved laying on the plush rug in my living room, and a few times a day, I'd catch her just staring in the corner and smiling like she could see something none of the rest of us could. In and of itself, not that creepy, I'm sure babies daydream, as The Daily Mail reported (probably about boobs and clean diapers and whatnot). However, it was the same corner of the room that my Akita used to stare into and bark. If you tell me that would not freak you out beyond all recognition, I would not believe you.
It turns out that they might just have been noticing things that I as an adult human could not, and not anything of the supernatural variety. The Smithsonian reported that babies can pick up on things and see things that we can't, like tiny image differences that would otherwise go unnoticed. And yes, I promise I'm talking about physical things in their environment that are 100 percent not sewer-dwelling evil clowns fond of red balloons.
Susana Martinez-Conde wrote in Scientific American that as babies develop, they are learning to differentiate what they see, therefore they are prone to notice differences you can't. Their brains are supercomputers, determining what they should keep in their gray matter, and what can be eliminated. It might look like they're staring into space, but they might also just be processing whatever it is they were looking at.
Scientist Daniel N. Stern wrote in Diary of A Baby that babies are also thinking all the time. So, if this is the case, why do babies stare into space and smile? Maybe it was a thought, maybe it was something they saw, maybe they know they're about to poop their pants and Daddy is going to make funny faces — it's all in their development.
There are a few cases where staring into space for long periods of time can be concerning, wrote family physician Karen Lattimer for Huffington Post. It can be linked to autism and a type of epilepsy known as "absence epilepsy." However, neither of these are associated with smiling as they stare into space. Typically, in those cases, you would expect to see a completely blank stare for a long time, she noted.
The rest of the time, they probably just farted and are waiting for you to notice.