How to amuse a baby

There are reasons to make a baby laugh.

Maybe you want to take a photo of little Skeets. Maybe you just want to get him into a better mood. Maybe you want to improve your own frame of mind (and if a laughing baby doesn't cheer you up, you're a failure as a human being). Sometimes there's a challenge — making someone else's baby in the grocery store laugh.

Before we look at how to make Skeets smile, let's look at some of the science behind it. First, smiling is a natural occurrence in humans, not something we learn.

"Within an hour after birth, they can imitate a person's smile, or an eyes-and-mouth surprise expression," says Amy Van Hecke, assistant professor of psychology at Marquette University and director of the Marquette Autism Clinic.

"They can't even see very well — you have to get really close — but if you make faces at them they will make their faces back. We are at heart social creatures. We are keyed in to other people. It's pretty remarkable."

That's the key: Go face-to-face with the kid. The face is the ultimate social tool, she says. Getting a baby to laugh can improve the child's development. Positive, smiling babies tend to sleep better, have more regular habits and are healthier in general. And laughter to a young child is a social phenomenon, Van Hecke says. The interaction that's involved sets the stage for better interaction with others when the child is older.

"What I think is really fascinating is that laughter also does something with the brain. There has been a lot of research on positive emotion and negative emotion. Positive emotion activates the left hemisphere of the brain, negative the right side. At that point, babies are developing language, which also is situated on the left side. So when you activate that side of the brain, you're activating learning."

So let's start activating those little brains:

Getting started: What makes a young baby laugh is your facial expression. So vary it. Puff out your cheeks, make faces, roll your eyes. Just make sure you and the kid are on the same page. "You can't make a crying baby laugh," Van Hecke says. "Don't laugh and smile at a crying baby. That upsets them even more."

Sound effects: That squeaky toy isn't nearly as engaging as what you can do. Show the kid: Look, this is something else my face can do. "Blowing kisses, raspberries, puffing your cheeks out. They're watching your mouth when you do that. The more we study, we learn they're taking in everything." And that interaction, remember, is the key. Jack Moore's book, "97 Ways To Make A Baby Laugh" (Workman), suggests feigning sleep and snoring loudly, then sitting up quickly in mock surprise each time the baby touches you.

Tickling? That's cheating. But if that's how you get their attention, it's OK, Van Hecke says. But be gentle. And once you have their attention, build social interaction in other ways.

That kid in the checkout line: Babies love laughing with — or at — strangers. In fact, it's often their idea. "The important thing is to make sure the baby initiated it, that they were looking at you first," Van Hecke says. "Start at a lower level, don't go 'Boo!' or get in their face. ... The point is to start less intense. Look away, look back, then depending on the baby's reaction you can go from there. ... Babies around 8 or 9 months start to do this, this coyness, coy behavior. They tease you, and they will initiate it with you. If they initiate it, go for it."

Degree of difficulty: Easy.

Tools needed: Your face. Whistles, kazoos or air horns will just scare a baby. "I'd keep fingers out of the equation if it was me," Amy Van Hecke says. "I don't think they're intrinsically interesting for most babies." You might try a cardboard tube from inside a roll of paper towels — aka, the Root-a-Toot-Toot — according to "97 Ways To Make A Baby Laugh," by Jack Moore (Workman).

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