A Baby’s Smile: A New Parent’s Validation

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When my son was born in early April after nine months of eager anticipation—plus fifteen hours of marathon-like labor—his mother and I felt joy and relief at the sight of our heavy, healthy, crying baby. After some brief weighing, measuring, and assurance from the midwives that his head wouldn’t stay that shape for long, our new family enjoyed a well-earned and deeply satisfied nap.

In the middle of week three, after several days of interrupted sleep and mysterious fussing from the baby, relief gave way to insecurity and frustration. We were certain we must have been doing everything wrong. Why else would he cry so much? And the cries sounded so desperate. And the worst part: even when he wasn’t crying, he wasn’t smiling. We would have given anything for an occasional smile to tide us over during the stormy colic sessions—something that said, “You’re good parents. I don’t hate my new life. I love you.”

Alas, for approximately the first forty days after birth a baby’s face does not assemble itself into a true, recognizable smile. Occasionally, the baby will exhibit so-called “gas” smiles or “reflex” smiles: crooked little grins that most sources credit to something other than contentment. 

We eventually came to terms with this lack of reassurance from our little one, even deciding that it was better this way. A poker-faced newborn teaches parents early on that a baby is not mom and dad’s self-esteem machine. We’re here for him, we reminded ourselves, not the other way around. After all, parenting isn’t supposed to be about to external rewards.

Then, at about six weeks, we were blessed with a big, open-mouth smile, the kind that brightens the entire face. It was even accompanied by some “guh-guh-guh” laughter. Unmistakably the smile of a happy baby, it was enough to validate all of our work and allay all of our anxieties. His “social” smile is so intoxicating, it can inspire a grown man to tickle his son’s face and ask, “Whose a little ducky?” for minutes on end.

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