One mum’s view of humour in infancy is a site where anyone can ask or answer questions. Everyone can also vote on the best questions and answers making it a wonderful exercise in the wisdom of crowds. I was mostly a passive observer until this question provoked me out of my silence

What are the most high leverage activities I can do with my 1-2 year old to promote his mental and cognitive development?

You can read my answer here, as I took issue with the very notion of treating your child like a corporate asset. But, more interesting to the readers of this blog is Karen Takatani‘s thoughtful and inspiring answer to the question. With Karen’s permission, I am reproducing it here in full:

One thing I learned quite by accident was how helpful it is to expose your child to HUMOR and allow them to develop a sense of humor as early as possible.

I consider being able to see humor in things a “high leverage” skill because its a skill that will help your child, who will eventually be an adult, cope with life’s ups and downs. Coping will allow them to realize their full potential (which is their decision anyway!) Rather than focusing on making your child happy, helping your child find humor will teach them to make themselves happy. Parent phrase: self-soothing.

My children’s dad was away a lot when they were infants. I had read that dads were really good at horseplay but moms … not so much. I think it’s a lot less natural for women!  I decided to be both mom and dad when dad was away. This  started when my first child was about three months old!  It felt very awkward at first!  I was so focused on feeding/sleeping/changing stuff it was strange for me to suddenly get extra silly.  She ate it up and was a full blown giggler in no time. By six months, she was looking for, or initiating humor; there was this gleam in her eye and I knew she was waiting for the next funny thing.

Humor that allows the baby to find humor in herself is even better! There’s nothing like giggling along with someone still in diapers!  A kid who falls while learning to walk and laughs at her goofy fall is way easier to deal with than one that cries every time. Another crazy moment with this humor thing was when I realized the diapered, bottle-feeding infant I was rocking in my arms was burping ON PURPOSE to get me to laugh. 

My daughter is seven now (for my followers-she is my neurotypical kid). We blew through her toddler years easily, it is kind of hard to maintain a tantrum when you are laughing, after all.  As a grade schooler,  she is known for her sense of humor, though she is not the class clown, and known for her creativity, which is required for spontaneous humor! She seems pretty well adjusted. Who knows, maybe she was just wired this way, but it is nice to have so many memories of laughter already! Maybe it will all go to heck in a hand basket when she hits puberty.  She makes her little sister laugh a lot which is great as the younger one is much more serious and dealing with some issues of her own. At least my serious one is very accustomed to being around humor and has been known to chuckle.

So jump right in and don’t worry if it feels unnatural or you feel super uncool. To a baby or small child there is nothing MORE cool that a parent that makes crazy faces, plays peek a boo, sings a lot (however badly) grabs them for a dance (or holds the littlest ones and dance), plays horse, pretends to eat their fingers and toes for dinner. You can’t go wrong, and it will serve them well to be able to see the world in a lighter way.

Karen Takatani’s answer to Child Development: What are the most high leverage activities I can do with my 1-2 year old to promote his mental and cognitive development? – Quora.

Charles Darwin’s observations of his son’s laughter

Charles Darwin with his eldest son William
Charles Darwin with his eldest son William

Did you know that Charles Darwin was the first scientist to study laughing babies? Darwin is so famous for his theory of natural selection that it overshadows some of his other landmark contributions to science. His observations of nature alone would have have made him famous. His book was so far ahead of its time “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” that it came 60 years before ethologists started studying the same questions and about a 100 years before the psychological study of emotions was taken seriously.

His observations of his favourite son ‘Doddy’ lead to another overlooked masterpiece “A biographical sketch of an infan”. One of the first observational accounts of infancy. It was published as a short paper in the philosophical journal Mind in 1877, 18 years after ‘On The Origin of Species’ at a time when Darwin was world famous. In one section, he reflects on what makes Doddy laugh:

A biographical sketch of an infant – Charles Darwin

Pleasurable Sensations.
It may be presumed that infants feel pleasure whilst sucking, and the expression of their swimming
eyes seems to show that this is the case. This infant smiled when 45 days, a second infant when 46 days old; and these
were true smiles, indicative of pleasure, for their eyes brightened and eyelids slightly closed. The smiles arose chiefly when looking at their mother, and were therefore probably of mental origin; but this infant often smiled then, and for some time afterwards, from some inward pleasurable feeling, for nothing was happening which could have in any way excited or amused him. When 110 days old he was exceedingly amused by a pinafore being thrown over his face and then suddenly withdrawn; and so he was when I suddenly uncovered my own face and approached his. He then uttered a little noise which was an incipient laugh. Here surprise was the chief cause of the amusement, as is the case to a large extent with the wit of grown-up persons. I believe that for three or four weeks before the time when he was amused by a face being suddenly uncovered, he received a little pinch on his nose and cheeks as a good joke. I was at first surprised at humour being appreciated by an infant only a little above three months old, but we should remember how very early puppies and kittens begin to play. When four months old, he showed in an unmistakable manner that he liked to hear the pianoforte played ; so that here apparently was the earliest sign of an {esthetic feeling, unless the attraction of bright colours, which was exhibited much earlier, may be so- considered.

Charles Darwin (1877) A biographical sketch of an infant Mind, 7, 285-294

Good to see that old reliable peek-a-boo raising a laugh. But isn’t somewhat surprising, given the stature of the author, that other scientists have largely ignored the laughter of infants in the following 135 years?




Baby Laughter project scientific statement.

The Baby Laughter project is run by scientists at the Babylab at Birkbeck College, University of London. We use a range of methods to study how babies learn about the world. This survey is our latest attempt to understand about the remarkable and all important changes that happen in the first few years of life.

The Baby Laughter project is a set of online survey for parents of babies and toddlers to see if there are developmental changes in what makes babies laugh at different ages. The aims are two-fold. Firstly to see how laughter changes in the first two years of life and secondly to see if those changes track other milestones in cognitive development.

My hope is that we will find some evidence that babies’ laughter is a good index of what they understand about the world at different ages. Laughter is a strangely neglected topic in developmental psychology (Rothbart, 1973; Nwokah et al 1994; Reddy, 2001; Kawakami et al, 2006). But it is one which could provide interesting new insights into infant cognitive development. We also expect to confirm the findings in the adult literature (Provine, 2000) that most laughter is primarily social in nature, By finding out what situations, people and events babies find most amusing and entertaining at different ages, we hope to provide a new perspective on infants’ social and emotional development.

The participants will be parents of babies (two years old and under). They will be recruited online via the project website itself (, from the CBCD participant database and via parenting websites and by individual recommendations and social media. We aim to recruit at least 200 participants for each of the two surveys, but ideally many more.

A set of two online questions for parents asking them about things which make their babies laugh.
Full survey – The causes of infant laughter
9 sections, ~60 questions, 15-30 minutes to complete
Questions about baby and family background, causes of laughter, funny situations, places, times of day, interactions with people. In addition to the questions prepared specifically for this survey, participants can optionally answer a set of standard questions about infant temperament (Very Short Infant Behaviour Questionnaire, Gartstein and Rothbart, 2003)
Very short ‘field report
6 questions, 2-5 minutes to complete
A very short survey asking the parent to describe a single incident of infant laughter.Questions ask for infant age, details of who was present, where and when the event took place and what happened.

From the long survey, we hope to discover what toys, games, sensations and interactions cause babies to laugh the most. How early does social laughter start? What are the primary causes of laughter in infancy? Do these change with cognitive development? Is laughter influenced by, family size, socio-economic status, temperament, etc
From the shorter survey, We hope to accumulate evidence in support of the hypothesis that babies laugh most at events and activities for which they are just starting to understand the relevant features of the world. Laughing at falling objects as physical intuition develops, etc.