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How Early Do Infants Understand Humor?

How Early Do Infants Understand Humor?
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Infants go from giggling at silly faces to attempting comedy themselves.

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Richard Sagred/Unsplash/Used with permission

New York City has an annual tradition of holiday nostalgia rides on 1930s train cars every December. I happened to be in one of these trains recently, and I found myself a seat next to what might have been a father and his six-month-old little boy on a stroller. The train was packed. There were Christmas carolers all around, loads of folks clicking pictures, and a general sense of cheer and noisy chaos. The baby began to fuss and the dad started making silly faces at him. He went from a monkey face to all sorts of silly expressions, and the baby went from a small smile to a big laugh. Dad continued with these silly faces and found a nice rhythm, repeating the ones that got the baby to giggle. The two of them seemed transported to their own little world and the baby’s laughter was so powerful that I found myself smiling, as were other onlookers. Did the baby really understand the absurdity in dad’s crazy faces?

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How early do infants understand humor?

Studies have shown that babies begin to understand humor and absurd events at as early as three to five months of age. When researchers rolled up foam balls and placed them on their noses, infants laughed. Like the dad on the train, researchers made silly faces, and infants giggled. They laughed at absurd events even when others around them maintained neutral faces—that is, they were not simply imitating the facial expressions of others. In another study with infants, 30 parents were instructed to try and make their baby laugh without touching them. Most parents used physical comedy in some form: silly faces, absurd use of objects, blowing raspberries, playing peek-a-boo, and wildly exaggerated forms of regular events—walking like a penguin. By six months of age, 60 percent of babies laughed at the absurd antics of their parents.

Source: Jude Infantini/Unsplash/Used with permission

More importantly, babies seem to understand humor way before they develop any language. Perhaps there are important evolutionary origins for laughter as a coping mechanism in humans. Longitudinal studies have shown that during early parent-infant interactions, parents try a number of nonverbal ways to get their baby to laugh. In most of these early instances, parents smile or laugh themselves. And if the baby were to respond by smiling or giggling, parents repeat the absurd activity because the baby laughed. What may have begun as the baby simply imitating the parent’s smile quickly develops into the baby genuinely laughing at the absurdity of the parent’s actions. Infant laughter tells us that they are keen observers and have a solid understanding of what is normal and familiar—so when we make a wild exaggeration of a regular event, babies stare at us for longer, and they laugh.

Laughter signals more than joy. It becomes an additional source for strengthening the social bond between infants and their parents. The repeated interactions in which a parent attempts silly faces or an absurd misuse of objects signal a safe, familiar context with a social partner. These allow infants to understand and appreciate humor with a loved one. The incredible thing is that in most of these instances, there are no toys or expensive props needed to scaffold humor development in babies. Laughter in babies is inexpensive. Laughter builds allegiances and affinity.

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Three Scientific Steps to Promote Humor Development in Infants

  1. Engage the baby for a few minutes every day using physical humor (e.g., silly faces, goofy use of familiar objects)
  2. Smile, laugh, and giggle to encourage your baby to do the same
  3. Continue the absurd activity and add more variations if the baby smiles or laughs

When Babies Start Being Funny

Infants begin to detect that some events are funny, and very soon after, they start attempting to be funny themselves. By 11 months of age, babies have been shown to demonstrate “clowning” and experiment with making their own nonverbal jokes. Some babies expose their tummy and wiggle their bodies around in an attempt to make others laugh. Other babies have been seen to feign crying when their mom starts to cut their fingernails, followed by a smile. Yet others wear a sock over their ear and find that hilarious. Babies show creativity in making up new jokes and attempt them repeatedly to make their parents laugh.

Humor is an important tool for our mental well-being and helps young children thrive in their social lives and form bonds with others. As children grow older, their humor gets more sophisticated, involves verbal jokes, and evolves into different forms. Simple interactions with the parent set the stage early on for infants to laugh. These early instances of laughter are powerful. Not only do they signal joy and happiness, they deepen social connections.

References

Hoicka, E., Soy Telli, B., Prouten, E., Leckie, G., Browne, W. J., Mireault, G., & Fox, C. (2022). The Early Humor Survey (EHS): A reliable parent-report measure of humor development for 1- to 47-month-olds. Behavior research methods, 54(4), 1928–1953. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-021-01704-4

Mireault, G., Poutre, M., Sargent‐Hier, M., Dias, C., Perdue, B., & Myrick, A. (2012). Humour perception and creation between parents and 3‐ to 6‐month‐old infants. Infant and Child Development, 21(4), 338–347. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.757

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Mireault, G. C., Crockenberg, S. C., Sparrow, J. E., Cousineau, K., Pettinato, C., & Woodard, K. (2015). Laughing matters: Infant humor in the context of parental affect. Journal of experimental child psychology, 136, 30–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2015.03.012



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