baby laughter
Photo by Deedee Geli on Unsplash

Before there are words, there is laughter. Babies make gigglefests look easy. They laugh at everything from traffic jams, to dogs and cats, to mommy and daddy tying their shoes. No punchline necessary. LOLs abound.

As sweet as it is, a mystery still remains. Exactly why do babies laugh?

Developmental psychologist Caspar Addyman aims to answer this question. And he takes his job very seriously, tirelessly conducting experiments to study human behavior. His subjects? Babies. His research? Laughter. That's right. Someone spends all day listening to the innocent giggles of small children. Arguably the best job in the world, second to petting cats.

Addyman's baby laughter studies have inspired some other innovative and creative projects, such as the Shake, Rattle, and Roll (play specifically made for babies to make them laugh) or Imogen Heap's Happy Song, which she collaborated with Addyman on. And though his research was making headlines a year ago, it's once again going viral. Because his findings are simple, heartwarming and profound.

Collecting parents' observations of their baby's laughter—ages ranging from newborn to 2.5 years old—Addyman would ask when the baby's first laugh was, if mommy or daddy was funnier and if certain toys inspired more chuckles than another. Through his worldwide studies, Addyman gained these insights:


Peekaboo is the ultimate funny.

baby laughter study Photo by tian dayong on Unsplash

To no parent's surprise, peekaboo is a never-ending barrel of laughs. But what about it is so funny? One of the reasons, according to Addyman, is that babies have no concept of time. So each time mommy or daddy magically disappears, it comes as a shock. Then when the beloved parent comes back, the surprise is a riot. But the fun doesn't stop there. As babies develop a sense that a mom or dad will come back, the game evolves into delightful anticipation. That's why even 2-year-olds still find peekaboo amusing.

Tickling is the second contender.

why do babies laugh Photo by Gabe Pierce on Unsplash

Though this one has the bonus of physical stimulus, the most important factor is the social context. Which is why receiving a tickle from a stranger is terrifying, where a tickle from mommy is welcomed and hilarious. Addyman says that tickling also developed from an even older communication ritual: "Tickling has deep evolutionary roots that come from being a mammal. It's partly related to grooming, a vital function that is also pleasurable." Tickling, like grooming, is a one-on-one trust-building experience.

When it comes to laughter, the more the merrier.

scientist studies baby laughter Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

When a cartoon played to a group of preschoolers, they laughed eight times more than when that same cartoon played in front of a single preschooler, alone. This implied that laughter is primarily a social tool of communication. "It's a genuine signal that you send when you're in a relaxed and comfortable situation," Addyman says in his interview with TED. He noted that even the preschoolers who watched the cartoon alone would often look toward the researchers during the funny bits. Laughter gives us a sense of belonging.

Freud was wrong.

baby laughter ted talk Photo by Juan Encalada on Unsplash

Babies do not instinctively find joy in another's pain. Addyman's studies showed that babies were more likely to laugh at themselves falling over, versus someone else. Schadenfreude, therefore, seems to be a concept we learn in adulthood to cope with the harsh realities of life, rather than something we're born with.

Mommy is no less funny than Daddy.

baby laughter science Photo by Seth Reese on Unsplash

Both mom and dad seemed to score equal amounts of funny points. However, parents also reported that their sons laughed close to 50 times a day, whereas their daughters seemed to only chuckle around 37 times. The divide, Addyman says, could be due to how the behavior is "reinforced by the parents … If you think your boy baby is laughing more, you may try to make them laugh more."

The key ingredient to laughter: LOVE.

science of laughter Photo by Daniel Thomas on Unsplash

"Happiness is greatest when we're with our loved ones," Addyman says. Human connection is far more impactful than a puppet or a toy. Hence the power of peekaboo. More than anything, a baby is looking for pure social interaction and undivided attention from their adult protectors. Their laughter is a way of having a heartfelt conversation.

Addyman admits that in a grown-up world, laughter might not come as easily. But he says the first step is to do what babies do: just be in the moment. "Babies laugh more than us because they take the time to look around," he says. Addyman thinks that a baby's pure, (literally) unadulterated laughter might be an expression of "flow," a term created by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to label that joyful state where you're so fully immersed in the present moment, you can't help but enter bliss. Considering how effortlessly a baby can reach joy, it seems he's onto something.


Plus his own studies are far from over. Next Addyman plans to explore how a baby's laughter plays a role in their learning process. There's still so much to learn, and laugh at.

By the way, you can watch Addyman's inspiring TEDxBratislava Talk on laughter via YouTube. It's great for all ages.

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Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

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“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

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“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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