When your baby is born, one of the first things you might notice about his darling little face is the terribly anxious expression there (complete with a tiny frown!). Why do newborns look worried like this? Do they hate your face, dislike what you’re doing, or just have a general disapproval of the world and life in general?
Don’t worry, they don’t hate you. According to experts, newborn frowning is a sign that the baby wants to take a break from what they’re doing or that they’re sleepy and tired. If you miss this sign, the baby may become agitated or more difficult to settle down.
So then the next question naturally is, how do newborns smile and when do they do this? According to one study, smiling is innate, not learned, but be patient. They’ll smile eventually.
So what is a smile — and why do newborns take a few months to get the hang of it?
How babies develop expressions
Your baby’s first real smile says a lot about his development. It’s a sign his vision has improved and he is able to recognize your face. His brain and nervous system have matured enough to eliminate reflex smiles, and he’s now aware that smiling is a way for him to connect with others.
Your little one is also beginning to realize his feelings matter and have a direct effect on the people around him. He’ll smile to express pleasure, excitement, contentment, and happiness.
In the same way, he’ll frown to express displeasure, fear, unhappiness, and other negative emotions.
Why newborns look worried
Well, this is awkward.
Charles Darwin was among the first to try explaining why humans smile. He noted that many animals warn one another by baring their teeth, and suggested that early humans may have routinely greeted strangers with a canine snarl. Over time, Darwin speculated, this greeting lost its edge and became one way we recognize the presence of another person.
But it was one of Darwin’s contemporaries, Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, who contributed the first meaningful scientific take on smiles.
Duchenne mapped the differences between genuine smiles and that expression you make when you get a cake on your birthday. This gave rise to what contemporary scientists refer to as fake non-Duchenne smiles and genuine Duchenne smiles. A real smile exercises the muscles around your eyes, not just your mouth.
From Duchenne’s time until now, there hasn’t been much in the literature regarding smiles. Scientists have noted that non-human primates display something akin to a smile that’s associated with camaraderie.
Newborns look worried sometimes
Some research has examined how smiling differs across cultures. One study demonstrated that Americans and Australians can guess the nationality of a smiling Caucasian person, but cannot do so when the Caucasian person makes a neutral expression. Other studies have confirmed that diverse cultures have different rules governing when it’s appropriate to smile.
“Rarely do we think, ‘Isn’t it interesting that another culture has different smiling rules?’ We view them as being a different type of person,” psychologist Marianne LaFrance of Yale University told Wired.
“At home, judgments based on a person’s smiling habits might be warranted. But when you’re talking about cross-cultural boundaries, those judgments can be really off-base.”
“My mother’s choice of clothing makes me worried that I’ll be unfashionable later in life.”
The science behind why newborns look worried
In neuroscience, there isn’t much clarity on why we smile. “While neuroimaging data (pictures of the brain when it is active) tells us how emotional expressions are perceived, it doesn’t tell us why we smile (as opposed to frown, for example),” psychologist Nakia Gordon of Marquette University told her school’s magazine.
But neuroscience may provide hints as to why babies start smiling only after a couple months of straight-faced cooing. Brain imaging studies suggest that we cannot be truly happy unless we’re capable of self-referential thinking, Dustin Scheinost of Yale University’s Child Study Center tells Scientific American.
Studies have shown that building that sort of brainpower takes time. “To be happy, you have to know that you’re happy,” Scheinost says. “A lot of unhappiness initially isn’t really unhappiness but rather low-level feelings like ‘I’m hungry.’”
What babies think when newborns look worried
After a few months, studies suggest, babies’ brains have developed enough to know things like “I’m unhappy because I’m hungry.” At this point, you can expect your baby to start smiling when he or she is happy.
Another prerequisite for happiness is memory — if you cannot retrieve any happy memories, you’re unlikely to smile very often.
A 2014 study published in Science found that a stable network of neurons is required for memory to form. The study also found that infants’ growing brains shake up their neuronal networks so often that memories seldom form. Perhaps babies don’t smile until their brains calm down a bit.
“Mother, why don’t I have fur? I am worried.” Newborns may look worried, but don’t worry, mums!
Newborns look worried but not for long
Your baby’s reflex smile will disappear by time she’s two months old, and her first real one will make an appearance somewhere between one and a half to three months of life.
When it’s the real deal, you will see the emotion expressed in your baby’s eyes.
You can tell the difference between a reflex and real smile by the timing and duration. Generally, reflex smiles tend to be shorter and occur randomly, when the baby is sleeping or tired. Real smiles, on the other hand, occur in response to something, like seeing her mama’s face or hearing a sibling’s high-pitched voice, and they are consistent, Dr. Gettleman explains.
When newborns look worried, make them smile
If your newborns look worried still, there are some things you can do that may encourage them.
- Talk to them often and make sure you give them time to “respond.”
- Make eye contact frequently.
- Smile at them throughout the day.
- Get silly, too. Make funny faces or noises, imitate animal sounds and behaviours, blow raspberries on your baby’s belly, or play a game of peek-a-boo.
- Just don’t overdo it. “Babies are developing the ability to regulate their emotions and may look away if they are getting too much stimulation,” says child psychologist David Elkind, Ph.D., author of Parenting on the Go: Birth to Six, A to Z. Give your kiddo a little breather and try again later.
YOU CAN ALSO READ: Baby stares at beautiful people: A study shows babies trust them more
Republished with permission from: theAsianParent Singapore