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Children, young people and families

‘Babies really enjoy being babies’

Annie Brookman-Byrne asked Caspar Addyman about his new book, The laughing baby: The extraordinary science behind what makes babies happy.

25 March 2020

Why baby laughter?
This isn’t entirely a book about baby laughter… it’s about the experience of a baby. One thing I noticed in my research is that babies really enjoy being babies. The main goal of The laughing baby is to go through the first two years of life and ask, why is it fun? Why are they enjoying being a baby? And laughter, obviously, is the best possible marker of having a good time and being happy. So it becomes about laughter as a result of that.

In the book you said you were convinced that baby smiles are real. Can you explain that?
I did a survey of parents all over the world asking them: When was the first time your baby smiled? When was the first time they socially smiled? When did they first laugh? What are the different things that make them laugh? And one of the things you hear over and over again, in all sorts of different places is that the earliest smiles are not real smiles – they’re trapped wind. And I completely reject that on the basis of the data. The parents said the first smile comes very early. It’s around six weeks or so, just the time when people say it would be this trapped wind. But this is coming from the parents, who better than anyone else know the nuances of what their own baby is doing. And actually, I did get at least one parent who was a professional baby researcher, who knows how to spot a real, full Duchenne smile where all of the muscles in the face light up.

So did the idea that it’s trapped wind come from people just expecting babies aren’t capable yet?
The first smiles are not social smiles, which is a bit of a surprise to people. If you think about laughter and smiles as having this evolutionary mechanism to communicate, you’d think that the first smile would be in a social situation. And they’re not, they’re smiles of satisfaction and happiness, because they’re still too young to be making that social connection. I think because these early smiles aren’t directly to a person, people dismiss them. But actually, you also smile when you’re happy. And that’s what those babies are doing.

Is anyone else looking at baby laughter, or are you the only one?
There are a lot of people looking at babies’ sense of humour. Elena Hoicka at the University of Bristol looks at babies’ understanding of joke-like behaviour. And there is a group in Paris, led by Rana Esseily, who’ve looked at whether laughter indicates an understanding of something – so the little laugh of eureka-like moments. They’ve done nice studies showing that babies laugh when they grasp a new task and can understand it and do it themselves. There aren’t so many people looking at it from the point of view of positive affect. Way back in the 1970s Mary Rothbart did include laughter in the Infant Temperament Questionnaire as a measure of having a calm or excitable baby. But it was used as a marker of something, rather than a thing in itself.

Do you have a favourite anecdote about a baby laughing?
That’s a good question... I need to develop one.

Over the years I’ve had lots of videos sent to me and one of the more surprising ones certainly taught me something. There was this phenomenon, a YouTube video of a baby laughing at tearing paper. Dad was tearing up a bill and an eight-month-old baby found it very funny. So lots of people started trying that with their own baby. And indeed, it is something that lots of babies find really funny. The first instinct of psychologists was to say it’s a deeply cognitive thing, that they like the fact that this solid object is broken apart. Then one parent sent me a video of their six-week-old baby laughing at somebody tearing up paper – at which point all of the cognitive explanations had to be thrown out. Something in this is universally appealing to babies. But at this point, I still don’t know what that is.

Why did you decide to write the book?
I was initially going to do it with my sister, who is a writer and had just had her second baby. And my brother is a stand-up comedian. We thought, he can make the baby laugh, and we’ll write about all the different things that make baby laugh over these two years. She ended up just being too busy. So I thought, right, do I still do this?

One of the things that’s really nice about working with babies is that in every study you have to explain clearly to the parents why you’re doing it. In a lot of studies with your undergraduate population or with adults, you whizz through the introduction and the informed consent, but with parents who are giving informed consent on behalf of the babies, you really want them to understand what the research is about. It’s hard to explain science in an accessible way but we got lots of opportunities because with every single parent there was a chance to slightly improve. At the end of 10 years of explaining baby science to lots of parents, I want to explain it to more parents. A lot of the parenting books aren’t doing that, they’re doing something completely different. And it felt like so much cool stuff that we discover in baby science is fun to talk about.

And following the same thread of talking to parents… If you could give one piece of advice to a new parent, what would it be?
In the book there are three bits of advice, two of which come from elsewhere but are worth repeating. The first one comes from Benjamin Spock and from John Bowlby – you know more than you think you do. Trust your own instincts and be confident. The second one comes from Mary Ainsworth, who says never miss an opportunity to hold a baby. You have a different relationship with a baby once you’re in physical contact, and that changes how much you tune into them.

My bit of advice is to take baby seriously. When you’re interacting with a baby, pause and wait for them to lead the interaction – what do they care about? Rather than trying to push things onto them, wait to see what they’re interested in and let them lead the interactions. Direct interaction with a baby is the really valuable thing for them.

What would you like to know about babies that we don’t yet know, or maybe could never know?
‘What it’s like to be a baby?’ is the classic thing that all infancy researchers are fascinated by and everybody else ignores. You either think that it’s just waiting for adult abilities to turn up or that babies are just completely confused about everything all the time. And actually, the starting point is not the adult in waiting, it really is teaching yourself the world from scratch. The closest you ever get to something like that is the culture shock of going to the other side of the world, into a place where you don’t speak the language and the cultures are different. It’s a bewildering and terrifying experience, exhausting… that is everyday experience for a baby, but without a previous culture to compare it to. I kind of want aliens to arrive so that we get to do that… but even then, it’s still the whole world that you’re experiencing.

At the beginning of the book, you acknowledge Imogen Heap. Could explain what that’s about?
Unbound are a publisher where you get people to support the book before it’s actually finished, to promise to buy a copy, like crowdfunding. And when we were doing that I’d been working with Imogen on The Happy Song with babies. We gave Imogen lots of advice on how to create something that would appeal to babies and then she produced this amazing song that really did take off. It was in the Spotify children’s chart and had millions of views on YouTube. And so very generously, she gave quite a large donation towards making the book happen.

So what’s in the book?
The book goes roughly chronologically through the first two years of life and a little bit of time in the womb before that. Across all of those periods, we’re looking at all of the skills that babies are learning, asking how it happens and why it happens the way that it does. The key thread throughout is that they can’t do it on their own – they need the parents and their peers, people around them. They need the whole of human society to support them in a way, and that is a consequence of us being an incredibly social mammal.

Laughter is first and foremost a way of connecting with other people. It gets to the heart of what it is to be social. You meet a stranger for the first time, it’s one of the first things you share with them. But when do babies first have positive emotions? Can they feel things in the womb? What are the earliest ways that they interact with you?

The book then looks at the first few months out of the womb at the simple, pleasurable things that babies do – eating and sleeping. The first way you really interact with babies is through touch and through holding them. It often gets overlooked that as a baby you need to inhabit your body and learn about your body. Quite simply skin-to-skin contact from very early on is a way to regulate the connection between the body and the world. We undervalue that from an adult point of view but it’s completely crucial to a baby.

I then look at the things you might normally think of in a book about baby cognitive development. What do babies achieve by playing with toys? Play is their work. But what drives their endless curiosity and their delight in discovering all these new things every single day?

Once you’ve mastered your body and your connection to the physical world, and you’ve got this delight in the world, you now have to start connecting with other people. Language and music – parents singing to baby – is really an important way to communicate and connect with babies. Babies are using language to learn concepts. You can’t ever point to a yes or no and yet a baby at 18 months is already starting to understand.

The very last bit of the book finishes on how, approaching two years old, babies are finally in a position to be independent. They start to form friendships of their own, to interact as equals with other children. And then that really launches them into the full human world.

Given all that you know about babies, if you could put into place one policy, what would it be?
In this country, greater parental leave in the first year. Parental leave for mothers and fathers to spend time with their baby. Or failing that, funding for high quality childcare because human interactions are important from the very beginning. The best ones are with your parents, but the second-best ones are where someone has got time to interact with you.

‘The payoff comes from all the connections…’

How did you find the book writing process?
It was really painful to write the book. It was deceptively difficult. I guess there were two really difficult things about it. One was just finding the time and motivation to write something 100,000 words long. That’s extended over several years in the gaps between my real job. And then the second one was to organise things conceptually and in an engaging way. I didn’t want it to be a list. It has to be a story. But it isn’t just a chronological story, there are different things to focus on at different points. It was quite tricky to work out which bits fitted where and what to leave out.

Would you recommend writing a book?
It’s awful, it’s exhausting because it takes a long time, and you’ve got to keep motivated all the way through… But once it’s done, and various people have told me this, the payoff comes from all the interesting connections that you get afterwards. Readers are enthusiastic people and they’ll come up to you and share stories, share possibilities for collaboration as a result. Everyone I know who’s written a popular book of some kind has not regretted the honeymoon period afterward.

Although you're writing a book, each page, each paragraph, gets written on its own. So any writing you've done before can often be fitted into a book. When writing a book, you start by writing short pieces and build them up. I started with blog posts, and then got invited to write articles in various places. You learn a lot about structuring a piece that is a few pages long. And a book is many of those strung together in a coherent way.

I had written a novel beforehand, so that was helpful. I did it in 2004 through National Novel Writing Month where you write 50,000 words in one month. You turn off your editor and your mental editor. You just have to keep going. What comes out isn't great, but then you can edit it afterwards. Having done something of that length, you know that you can keep going. It's a learning experience. You can throw that away and say, I'm never showing this to anybody, but you've done it. People don't believe they could ever run a marathon but you build up to it, and then once you've done it you think, 'I did it, I don't feel like I'm a different person'. It wasn't such a scary thing after all.

I remember saying to you when I was undergraduate that doing a PhD sounds like the scariest thing. How can you possibly write that many words? And you were saying similar things… You just do it.
You get to the end and go, 'oh, I managed it, I don't quite know how’. You just keep going.

What's good with the PhD is that you've got someone pushing you and hopefully helping you in the process. If you come to write a book, it's very rare that you will have that support. You usually have to take the plunge individually and say, ‘I want to do this’.

Most of publishing is pretty sales driven and so it makes you compromise a bit. I read a load of parenting books when I was writing this book, and they're mostly awful and mostly say ‘this is the one secret to babies’. And everybody who writes a parenting book becomes a one trick pony as they have to keep a simple story. They’re marketed as 'the sleep training person' or 'the anti-sleep training person'. And you see that in the popular science books as well. 'This is the answer to everything!’ And obviously the real answer is much more complex and nuanced, and publishers don't want to hear that. But I don't want to just compromise to market things.

So could you do whatever you wanted by publishing with Unbound?
Part of the reason I went to Unbound is that everywhere else I went, they said, ‘so this is a book for parents, is it?’ No, it's not a parenting book. This is a 'anyone interested in science' book. When I went to science publishers they said, ‘science readers aren’t interested in babies’. But they should be! In the end I thought, I'm a baby scientist, I think baby science is cool, let's try and convince people, and Unbound really let you have a lot more control over your idea. You still have to convince lots of people that it is a good idea. You've got to raise funding, which they don't really support you with. It tests your idea… You sell it to readers, you're not selling it just to one marketing person. You have to ask yourself, how do I sell this to people before they even read the book?

- Caspar Addyman, Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Director of the Goldsmiths InfantLab
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Photo: Tina Vedrine