Myth Busting 10: Newborns can’t smile

My third child, now 9 months old, was not very happy about being born. It was a lovely calm home birth in water. According to the ‘rules’ he should have been calm, staring into my eyes with fascination and then, when he was ready, searching around for his first blissful feed. But it was not to be. As soon as our midwife lifted him from the pool, my beautiful son screamed. Like a banshee. The first thing I said, in my exhaustion before I even turned around to look at him, was, ‘Teeny babies aren’t supposed to make that sort of noise, they’re supposed to mew like kittens’. I’d never heard anything like it from a newborn. As it turned out, this was the first indication of the difficulties we would have with him. In that first hour, all he wanted to do was snuggle up to me (or Daddy) with his eyes closed, and *not move*. If I tried to reposition him slightly so he could reach my nipple, he screamed. If anyone so much as touched his foot, he screamed. And when he did finally try to feed, *I* nearly screamed. Looking back, I think he was born with a crick in his neck, or some other discomfort in his body, and putting his head back properly and opening his mouth wide and putting his tongue forward so he could properly attach to the breast was very uncomfortable for him. Eventually, after a very nasty first week that involved cracked nipples and mastitis, we finally found a way to attach so he wasn’t doing me damage and was actually milking my breast.
One of the things we did in that process was to teach him to open is mouth and put his tongue forward on cue, by playing an imitating game.
When he was calm and alert, I would say, “Wide mouth” and open my own mouth wide and stick my tongue out, My baby would copy and I would smile and act excited. I started doing this on the advice of an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor when he was four days old. Within a day he had learnt to associate the words ‘wide mouth’ with the action of sticking is tongue forward. With the help of another trick or two, he got on the breast properly and my nipples started to heal. A couple of days later, I saw his first definite smile.

Someone on Facebook shared a beautiful photo of a newborn, still covered in vernix, beaming at the camera. You can see the photo here.

When my Facebook friend shared the smiling baby photo, it was immediately assumed, by commenters, to be either Photoshopped or ‘wind’. I’m not a good enough judge to say for sure it’s not edited, but there’s no way that smile is wind. Where would a minutes-old baby get wind anyway?

Granted, it is rare for a baby to smile this young. None of mine did – although, come to think of it, if you don’t count the oldest (who was born not breathing and ended up spending a couple of days on a ventilator) or the youngest (who was born screaming), then really only the middle one was in a position to smile that early on. But she didn’t. Or if she did, I didn’t recognise it. You certainly don’t hear of it happening often.

But why do we think it’s impossible? It is considered the ‘scientific’ view, but where does it come from? In fact, according to the book How Babies Think by developmental psychologists Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, babies are able to imitate sticking out their tongues and opening their mouths from birth. Yes, the researchers had pagers and ran to the hospital to conduct their research within hours of the birth of their ‘subjects’ – in one case, the baby was less than 45 minutes old. They say,

For many years “experts” who, in fact, knew nothing systematic about babies, took a certain perverse satisfaction in assuring parents that their new babies’ minds were somewhat less sophisticated than that of a slug. Babies couldn’t really see; their smiles were “just gas”; the idea that they recognized familiar people was a fond maternal illusion…

So why am I raising this on a discipline blog? Partly because I thought you’d like to see the beautiful photo 😉 But also because I think it says something about the way we view, and therefore treat, our children. Remember in old movies how they always slap the baby at birth to make it cry? Somehow our culture seems to think it’s good for kids to cry from birth, but not to smile. What does that say about our view of childhood?

I think it contributes to, or comes out of,  the unspoken belief that children, and especially babies, are not real people – and therefore cannot have real emotions like happiness. In fact, we sometimes go even further, and discount the reality of their negative feelings, too. As a teenage girl said cheerfully, “They’re made to cry.” What?!? Why? Why would God make a child with the ability to communicate non-existent pain? God is not the author of confusion. If a baby, knit together by God’s wisdom in his mother’s womb, is expressing distress, surely we should assume that he is in distress? As my story above illustrates, a baby who cries is not happy and there is a reason, even at birth, although there may be no way of knowing what it is or being able to fix it.

And surely, if God (or evolution, if you prefer) has designed our kids with the ability to communicate when things are not right, wouldn’t it make sense to build in a positive feedback mechanism as well? Doesn’t it just make sense that a newborn should be able to smile?

And  here’s a short Youtube video of a 1-week-old smiling.

When did your baby first smile?

About Claire

I'm part-time stay-at-home mum to 3 children under 10. We're trying to raise them with the gentleness and creativity God uses with us. I'm also a part-time nurse and a volunteer breastfeeding advocate. We live not far from the beach or the bush in NW Tasmania.
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15 Responses to Myth Busting 10: Newborns can’t smile

  1. TealRose says:

    Heavens! And I really thought that the ‘wind/gas’ theory had been blown out the water years ago !! lol!! After all, as my midwife told me when I had my first baby over 32 years ago .. ‘ When did YOU or anyone else SMILE when they got wind ???’

    My daughter, my first baby, smiled within minutes in my arms .. still wet and sticky and only JUST had had her cord cut! [I do have a hard copy photo somewhere … I should look it out ! ] She could also raise her head some too – I was more surprised by that but was told that more and more babies were being born with the ability to hold up their heads at birth. The medical world just said it was better nutrition ..

  2. Cynthia says:

    My first two first smiled, as far as I noticed, around four weeks. Pretty typical. My third, though, first smiled at me when she was only a few days old, and she continued to smile at me frequently throughout her first month. It was so precious.

    I entirely credit the book Your Amazing Newborn for its confident assurance that newborns can (and do) interact with us far more than we give them credit for. I read it during my pregnancy with my third child, and it made such a difference in the way I viewed her as a newborn compared to how I viewed my first two.

  3. ptgauthor says:

    The idea that a baby smiles because it has gas is funny. If a doctor or “expert” tells you that, when you see that person smile, tell him he must have gas.

    I never understood the idea of slapping a newborn on the bottom. Were doctors afraid the baby would forget to breath? With doctors like that, no wonder it is rare for newborns to smile.

    It reminds me of some people who think spanking should be done until a child cries, and if the child does not cry, the spanking is not strong enough. I think that is ridiculous. The purpose of spanking is to teach obedience, and it should never be more severe than necessary and its objective should not be to humiliate the childr or make him cry.

    • Claire says:

      It is a funny idea, isn’t it? And it’s good that you see the error in the idea that you must make a child cry when spanking. After all some people have very high pain thresholds, or are simply not given to showing pain through crying – in such a child there is a real risk of doing severe physical damage with this approach. There are even some who say the child should cry, but *not too much* – excessive crying is a sign of rebellion against the correction and warrants *further pain*!
      However, this is a gentle discipline blog ;), so I will go further: Spanking always has the potential to psychologically harm a child. It is being hit by the people who should be protecting :(.
      And it is, at best, a distraction from the lesson at hand. It doesn’t teach obedience. The only way to learn obedience is to practice it. That’s why the Bible can say that Jesus, who was perfect and all-knowing, ‘learned’ obedience – he learned it by doing it 🙂 In the same way, we teach our children to obey, not by punishing them when they fail, but by helping them succeed.
      And that is how God parents us – he doesn’t punish us into complying out of fear, he ‘works in you both to will and to do according to his good pleasure’.
      Thank you for your comments and your insight 🙂 It is so true that the purpose of discipline ‘should not be to humiliate the childr or make him cry.’

    • Colleen G. says:

      The slap the baby’s bottom stereotype came from way back when they used to drug the mothers into a stupor so they wouldn’t experience labor. The baby also got an unhealthy dose of the drugs and needed a slap to get them breathing because they had no breathing reflex because of the drugs. Barbaric.

  4. ptgauthor says:

    Many people who have views about spanking (as if there are people who do not have views about spanking!) are influenced by their experience, either their experience being raised by their parents, or their experiences raising children. I have experienced and seen how right spanking can help a child, but not all people have had that experience. They do not know what right spanking looks like because they have never seen it or experienced it. All they have seen is wrong spanking, or no spanking.

    Right spanking does not psychologically harm a child. I have seen an absense of spanking or wrong spanking harm a child.

    I plan to write a post in my blog about spanking, maybe in the next few hours, so feel free to stop by.

    Here are some scriptures that show that God’s way is to punish us to teach us right ways, even Christians in the Church, even after we have believed the gospel, repented of our sins, been baptized, and received God’s Holy Spirit.

    The word, sometimes used in the Bible, chasten, means to punish. Here are some synonyms from

    Main Entry: chasten
    Part of Speech: verb
    Definition: correct, humiliate
    Synonyms: abase, admonish, afflict, berate, call down, castigate, chastise, chide, cow, curb, discipline, exprobate, fulminate against, have on the carpet, humble, objurgate, penalize, punish, rake over the coals, rebuke, reprehend, repress, reprimand, reproach, reprove, restrain, scold, scourge, soften, subdue, take to task, tame, tongue-lash, try, upbraid
    Notes: chasten means to correct by punishment, to take to task – to restrain or subdue; chastise means to punish, as by beating or to criticize severely

    Please notice, it includes the meaning, punish.

    Now notice these scriptures:

    Hebrews was written to the Church (Hebrews 3:1). Note notice Hebrews 12:5-11: “And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives. If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:5-11).

    Notice that the writer of Hebrews says that if you are without chastening (punishment), you are not a son (or daughter) of God (verses 7-8). In other words, if God doesn’t punish you, you are not really a Christian.

    “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent….He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:19-22).

    Furthermore, God teaches parents to include punishment as a teaching tool to teach their children the right way to live. “He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly” (Proverbs 13:24).

    Thus God teaches us both by instruction (Proverbs) and example (how He deals with us, His children in the Church), that we should include punishment as a tool to teach our children for their good.

    • Claire says:

      Proverbs is not ‘instruction’ it is proverbs – wise sayings, many of them hyperbolic or poetic in nature. Barefoot Betsy has done a fantastic job of exploring the meaning of the ‘rod’ proverbs on this blog, starting here, so I won’t say any more.
      God does not teach us with punishment, the book of Hebrews is written as encouragement to people who are experiencing suffering for doing what is *right*. Like Jesus, they were ‘learning obedience through suffering’ -that is, what it means to be obedient even while suffering for it – not learning to expect suffering for disobedience. WRT the word ‘chastise’, I note that you have happily dispensed with the definition ‘humiliate’ (which you stated in your first comment was never an acceptable goal) but have accepted the ‘punish’ part, which seems a bit arbitrary to me. Not that using an English dictionary to define Bible words is not usually the best idea. The Greek word being translated as ‘chastise’ is ‘paideia’, which is much closer to ‘educate’, or even ‘prepare for a royal position’ than ‘punish’ (here’s a great blog post (on another site) that goes into more detail). The words from your list of synonyms that would be most appropriate here would include reprove, admonish, restrain, correct. All these would potentially be part of paideia, but it would also include reasoning, appealing to his better nature, encouraging, guiding, exhorting, teaching, modelling and more. And what is the way the New Testament gives us to do these things? ‘All Scripture is… useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,’ God’s word is the rod of authority which we apply consistently to our children’s lives (and our own) to grow up into his likeness.

      It is true, of course, that I am influenced by my experiences, but not in the way you seem to assume. You can read my story for a little more detail, but put simply, I am a reformed spanker. I was spanked myself, the ‘right way’, I believed that what had been done to me was right and good, and I hold my parents no ill-will for doing what they believed was right. I changed my ways when I became convinced that God doesn’t say that. I am not a person who was abused in childhood and is unaware of another way. However, since I gave up spanking, any further doubts I may have had have been cleared up as I have found it perfectly possible to teach my children to obey (among many other important lessons) without punishment. In fact I find it easier (in one way) because my teaching starts from a place relationship and trust. I’m not saying those things don’t exist in a punitive paradigm, I’m saying they are so much harder to nurture when hurting the child is a requirement of the parenting style.
      That said, please show me in the Bible where God describes the ‘right way’ to spank, and where he promises that it won’t lead to psychological damage.
      You say you have seen people hurt by not being spanked, but I challenge you to prove that it was a lack of spanking that caused the harm. There are many people raised non-punitively who are now thriving, so I don’t see how you can say that that is definitely the problem – any more than I can say that a given person would be fine if they hadn’t been spanked. There are many things that contribute to how we each turn out. But there is always a risk of psychological damage and damage to the relationship when we deliberately hurt one another. You cannot guarantee otherwise. I would suspect that the actual cause of the hurt you have witnessed was either a lack of discipline (and I note you are aware that discipline and punishment are not necessarily synonyms), or some other trauma/problem in their lives (of which you may be entirely unaware).

      I have been a little more blunt than I like to be in this comment. I hope I haven’t offended you, but it’s pretty late at night, here, and I don’t have a lot of time. It is good to discuss our differences, and I hope I have explained my position on these things clearly. Thanks for your input.

  5. ptgauthor says:

    I am not offended by your bluntness. I hope you will not be offended by mine. “As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17).

    “Chasten” can have slightly different meanings in different contexts. Generally, as I have seen it used in the Bible, it means punish, not necessarily humiliate a child has I used the term humiliate. There has to be a balance. God “humbled” Israel (Deuteronomy 8:2-3), yet elsewhere He says not to humuliate one being punished for a crime by beating him with more than forty blows (Deuteronomy 25:3). Any kind of punishment tends to humble a person, but when I said we should not punish so severely as to humiliate a child, I am talking about a degree of punishment – it should not be too harsh.

    I find it interesting that you say you did not have a bad example of being spanked in a wrong or abusive way as a child, yet you have decided not to use spanking to teach your children. I never heard that before, so you have taught me something. From what I have seen in other blogs, I think you are probably not the only parent who feels that way. At least one other blogger told me she has based her decision not to spank primarily on what she believes the Bible teaches about it, not on any bad experiences.

    In Proverbs, a “rod” is a symbol of punishment. It wouldn’t make sense any other way. It would not make sense to use a physical object that would be used for punishment, such as a whip or rod, to represent teaching by words or setting a right example, which are not punishments. And God represents sparing the rod, that is, withholding punishment, as a lack of love, in effect, “hating” our children (Proverbs 13:24). That the rod is a symbol of punishment, not verbal instructions or setting of examples, is made clear in several passages. Proverbs 10:13 says, “But a rod is for the back of him who is devoid of understanding.” Here a rod is spoken of as something applied to the back. If it represented words of instruction, it would be for the ear. If it meant an example others could see, it would be for the eye. Something applied to the back is a punishment. Also, look at Proverbs 23:13: “Do not withhold correction from a child, For if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.” This shows that a rod is something used to beat someone, but not to the point of death. You cannot say this refer to speaking of words of setting right examples. If “beating with a rod” meant “teaching by word and example”, there would be no need to say, “he will not die.”

    My description of the “right” way to spank is from my own experiences. What I have found in the Bible is the general principle that God punishes His children to teach lessons for their good, including Christians, and we should do the same with our children. God punishes those He loves – that much is clear. If punishment causes psychological damage, God would not use that form of teaching with His own children and with mankind in general, nor would He use a “rod” as a symbol of how we should train our children the way “rod” is used in Proverbs.

    God loves all mankind, because God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). He loved the world and sacrificed His Son so mankind can be forgiven and not suffer eternal death (John 3:16). God even loves sinners, desiring that they repent (Romans 5:8, 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 33:11).

    Yet according to prophecy, God is going to punish the United States for its sins (abortion, breaking God’s weekly and annual sabbath day, adopting customs borrowed from paganism like Christmas and Easter, etc.) in the great tribulation with a punishment so severe that the majority will die in famine, disease, and and war, and those who survive will go into captivity (Google for the article on the “Secret Meaning of Pentecost” to find these prophecies). It will be worse than what the Nazi’s did to the Jews during World War II.

    Now, if God does not teach us with punishment, why will He bring these things upon us for our sins? If teaching is not the goal, what other purpose would God have to bring such severe suffering on those He loves?

    • Claire says:

      But the rod isn’t used for punishment. It is/may be: the staff held by the leader of the clan, representing his authority (he didn’t need to wield it to prove his authority); the staff held by a shepherd, which he uses to gently guide the sheep (if you hit a sheep it will not trust you/follow you); the club held by the shepherd, used to fend off predators (see a picture here); or even the sceptre of a king (note that if Xerxes had ‘spared’ his sceptre, Queen Esther would have died). It follows, since none of these are about punishment (of the sheep/people), that the original readers of the book of Proverbs would have assumed these texts (including the one about the back of fools) are meant to be about authority. You can read about the Jewish idea of the rod as an instrument of mercy here.

      Your definition of the ‘right way’ to spank (and I appreciate you respecting the intent of this blog by not going into detail as to what you believe that is) is based on your experience – but in the end, the only Biblical commands we find are, not to hit more than 40 times, and not to kill the child – if we really are going to read it that way (btw, I’m assuming you haven’t yet read Barefoot Betsy’s posts, so you may not realise that if they are to be taken literally the rod verse can only be applied to boys over the age of 12…). We are agreed that spanking the wrong way can damage, so if there really were a right way, would God not have spelled it out? There are instructions in the Torah about the flogging of adults and slaves, why is it conspicuously silent wrt the corporal punishment of children? People’s experience in this area is widely varied. Michael Pearl’s book ‘To Train Up A Child’ is based on his experience of the ‘right way’ to chastise a child, combined with his reading of Scripture – and following it to the letter led to the death of Lydia Schatz and the hospitalisation of her sister. He continues to state that is impossible. On what basis do you claim that your experience, and your claim of the impossibility of psychological harm, is more to be trusted than his? Without actual clear instructions from God, and with plenty of scientific evidence of the harm spanking (yes, even spanking the ‘right way’) can do, I find it very hard to believe that it is possible to find just the right teacher with just the right ideas. Also, those of us who have left the punitive paradigm (and you are right, I am not alone – most, if not all, of the other contributors to this blog have a similar story and so do many of the people we quote) have discovered in ourselves psychological damage that we would in the past have viewed as healthy. For example, I no longer believe any child (or any person) deserves to be hit, ever. That means I no longer believe I deserved to be spanked as a child – and I see my former acceptance of that violation of my body boundaries as psychological damage (of which God is still healing me).

      For the rest of your comment, I don’t see God that way, I don’t read the prophecies that way, I believe Jesus’ victory in the cross is much bigger than you do, I don’t believe God brings suffering on his children as punishment in the way you do, and as an Australian I am mildly annoyed at your US-centrist way of commenting on these things (seriously? you think God cares more about who practices Christmas than about the tens of thousands of children dying each day of preventable diseases? If he’s going to punish us for anything, our apathy in the face of injustice is the first thing I’d be hearing from the prophets, and from Jesus himself).
      So, my answer to this question,
      “Now, if God does not teach us with punishment, why will He bring these things upon us for our sins? If teaching is not the goal, what other purpose would God have to bring such severe suffering on those He loves?”
      is: he doesn’t. These things are happening as we speak, they are the inevitable result (natural consequences) of sin and God weeps. He has his reasons for appearing slow to complete the victory over suffering begun in his resurrection. I don’t pretend to understand the problem of suffering any more than Job did, but I suspect allowing some of his people to know ‘the fellowship of his sufferings and so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead’ is one reason. I believe allowing us to take part in his work of bringing healing, freedom, sight etc is another. In the right time he will bring justice – that is, make everything right – and in the meantime, we need to work towards the same goal. He hates sin because it enslaves us and he has come to set us free. The suffering the prophets describe is the problem, not the solution. But, being God, he does use it to bring about good – like in the case of the book of Hebrews, where they are learning obedience under persecution (or as Paul puts it ‘suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character and character hope, which does not disappoint – and the same idea is echoed by Peter and James – indeed, Heb 12:1 shows that perseverance is the context for the ‘chastening’ in v5).

      Please note that these are my personal theological views, and are not necessarily held by the other contributors to this blog – gentle parents exist across the theological spectrum. I invite gentle parents with theology/eschatology closer to ptgauthor’s to contribute your responses to these questions 🙂

  6. ptgauthor says:

    I apologize for speaking of the United States. In fact, prophecy indicates that the punishment of the great tribulation, which will probably occur in about the next fifteen years, but no one knows the exact date, will fall primarily on the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

    We will everntually know who is right. God will make it clear. If I am wrong, God will make it clear to me, and if you are wrong, God will make it clear to you.

    Personally, I don’t think you have ever known or seen the right way of spanking, and probably those who claim they have really have not. I don’t think one who has experienced it would be against it. That is just my opinion – I can’t prove that to you.

    • Claire says:

      Once again, without clear Biblical guidelines to look to, there is actually no objective way for either of us to know if we’ve ever seen the ‘right way’ of spanking. That said, if the ‘right way’ of spanking involves hitting the child, then I would be against it, no matter what else may be involved, or how it is done. In exactly the same way that I am against spouses hitting each other, or children hitting each other 🙂
      Let me ask you this: If you saw a 5yo administering a spanking to his younger sister in what you consider the right way, would his actions be acceptable? That is one of my ways of asking myself if a discipline technique is acceptable. Even though I am the parent and I am the authority who has the responsibility for discipline (along with my husband), it is a simple fact that children are designed to copy what is modelled to them. So if my child sets a boundary, I can expect him to defend that boundary in the same way I defend the boundaries I set. So my disciplinary actions are as much about modelling healthy and appropriate ways to get along with others when we don’t get our own way as anything else.
      In fact, one of the great things about gentle discipline is that it works both ways: If my discipline methods are respectful, then my children can use them on me, with no loss of parental respect! – and then as they grow up, they can use them with anyone they come into contact with – and so can I! As I learn new gentle ways to set and maintain boundaries, I am growing healthier in my relationships with others! And I can use these ideas on myself (I can’t spank myself, and as a rule I don’t find punishing myself in other ways an effective motivator either).

      This discussion has inspired me to write a separate post about beating with the rod, with thoughts I didn’t have space for in the comments. If you are interested, it is here.


  7. Lula says:

    I agree with you. My baby (now 5 days old) has been smiling since birth. Not consistently – she looked pretty annoyed when she came out and has a remarkable temper for one so young, but there are definite smiles there as well.

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