Baby comedians, grown-up clowns

[By: Pinelopi Bounia Mastrogianni]

Our adult, (not always) sophisticated sense of humour might involve laughing at Epic-Cat-Fails videos on the internet or at very bad puns, but do you remember that period when the re-appearance of mum’s face with a “peek-a-boo” was the best joke in the world? Probably not, but it was a fascinating one! Babies start laughing before they start to crawl, walk or talk and, before long, they start producing their very own non-verbal jokes to make people around them laugh. They start smiling at their first month and they laugh for the first time around 4-5 months of age, while they begin a humorous interaction by their 7-8 months. This very early adorable behaviour is proposedly connected to general cognitive development, as well as to the quality of the bond between infants and their caregivers – thus researchers have tried to describe the different ways infants joke and, mainly, what are the things they find amusing.

Baby, am I a joke to you?

What do babies laugh at? Young babies laugh a lot when they experience strange physical sensations, such as being tickled or being held upside down [1]. Also, as with adults, babies’ sense of humour seems to be partly based on a violation of the expected behaviour/outcome of an event, such as Mommy wearing a banana as a hat, Daddy showing his belly, or the all-times-classic face disappearance/re-appearance of the peek-a-boo game. This has very exciting implications, as it suggests that infants by 5 months have already acquired sufficient knowledge of certain events of their world, so as to be (pleasantly?) surprised when these do not end up as they were supposed to. But is this incongruity sufficient to make babies laugh? Vasudevi Reddy, a researcher who has studied infants’ appraisal and production of humour for the past decades, insists that, as with adults, a behaviour needs a context to be considered funny by infants [2]. For babies, this context is provided by the social engagement with their caregivers: when parents are acting absurdly in order to amuse their baby, they constantly smile or laugh, setting the frame of the behaviour to be conceived as funny – what Reddy calls “a playful frame”. Trying to make more clear whether infants will laugh at absurd events regardless of their parents’ affect, Mireault and her colleagues had parents produce neutral and funny actions for their babies, accompanied with neutral expressions or laughter [3, 4]. Interestingly, infants’ reactions varied with their age: 5-month olds seemed to find an absurd act funny regardless of their parent’s expressions, while 7-month olds were affected more from how their parents seemed to feel towards the event. This points to a behaviour previously reported at 8 month-old infants, social referencing, aka the infant will turn and look at the parent’s face when facing an ambiguous situation, such as a high cliff (previously blogged about by Julia). In infant humour’s case, when it comes to an ambiguous – possibly funny event, this effect could be understood as “Mom, is this as funny as it looks?”.

To the really fun part: What jokes do babies make?

Reddy asked the experts to describe how babies joke: their parents [4]. Based on reports by parents, she talks about two different sets of behaviours: clowning and teasing. Clowning occurs when a playful frame has been established, and it has been termed that way due to profound similarities of the behaviours to the ones clowns use: babies do odd faces and noises, they violate norms, they imitate other’s odd actions, they show hidden body parts – following the type of behaviours their parents have been doing the previous months to make them laugh, but also exploring new ways to joke on the spot. Teasing is a less benign way of having fun, and it involves babies mainly playing with others’ surprise (e.g. pretending to give a toy and taking it back the last moment) or breaking certain laws to provoke a known reaction. The interesting part with teasing is that it does not entail a playful frame to be used: it is the ultimate baby attempt to fight boredom and a strong way to invite others to an interaction. A recent worldwide scale study on infant laughter by Addyman [1], with parents reporting their babies’ humorous behaviour , has also corroborated many of the previously described ways of joking.

Both appraisal and production of jokes by infants make a strong point about the social foundations of humour: Although they live in a world which provides vast amounts of absurdity, babies rely largely on social cues provided by their caregivers to conceive and categorize a situation as funny, building their own armory of amusing behaviours based on the ones their parents used, and creatively improvising. The early appearance, excessive use and quick mastery of the playful joking skill by infants in their social environments can only confirm it: laughter is the shortest distance between people.


  • Addyman, C., & Addyman, I. (2013). The science of baby laughter.Comedy Studies,4(2), 143-153.
  • Reddy, V., & Mireault, G. (2015). Teasing and clowning in infancy.Current Biology,25(1), R20-R23.
  • 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.
  • Mireault, G. C., Crockenberg, S. C., Heilman, K., Sparrow, J. E., Cousineau, K., & Rainville, B. (2018). Social, cognitive, and physiological aspects of humour perception from 4 to 8 months: Two longitudinal studies.British Journal of Developmental Psychology,36(1), 98-109.
  • Reddy, V. (1991). Playing with others’ expectations: Teasing and mucking about in the first year.

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