With his dyed purple hair and tattoos, Dr. Caspar Addyman would cut a singular figure on the Goldsmiths University of London campus even if his specialty weren’t unique. But it is. Addyman is perhaps the world’s foremost effort on childish humor and the head of the Baby Laughter Project, which is exactly what it sounds. Predictably, he’s a low-key, funny guy. But he’s also data-driven and his suggestions for parents looking to make their babies giggle are both practical and mercilessly effective. He explains that, as with all forms of comedy, infant jokes are all about timing.
“The first smiles are occurring around one to three months, and the first actual laugh occurs on average around three and a half months,” says Dr. Addyman, who collects laughter reports from parents around the world. He notes the age is consistent with reports of first laughs going back as far as Darwin.
But the thing about those early laughs is that they are very easy to miss. “They’re very breathy, sort of gentle laughs because their lungs aren’t developed enough,” Addyman explains. “Crying is okay because it’s one continuous wail. But laughter is: huh huh huh.”
There’s another hurdle for researchers trying to chart those early laughs. Because baby laughter is so spontaneous, it’s hard to pin down what prompts it. (This is a common issue when researching laughter in adults as well.) But Addyman notes that all laughter does have a common denominator. “It’s about people,” he explains. “First and foremost, it’s a social thing. Almost certainly, it will be in the presence of mommy or daddy.”
As it turns out, dads have an advantage in the laughter game. That’s because, for better and for worse, they present a certain novelty. Mothers have near constant contact with the infant those first months. So, when dad’s face pops in it’s hilarious. “Mommy is just part of the furniture,” Addyman jokes before quickly adjusting the metaphor. “Mommy is the rock. She’s the world.”
But the most important secret Addyman holds is the surefire trick to make a baby laugh, regardless of where they happen to live in the world. He demonstrates by holding his hands in front of his face, then pulling them away with a hearty “Peekaboo!”
Yep. That’s it. The height of infant comedy. But why does it work?
“It is social contact stripped down to its basics,” Addyman says. “For the baby what’s rewarding is that they’re holding this adult’s attention. They’re interacting.” When you add peekaboo’s turn-taking and anticipation, it’s basically Dave Chappelle for infants.
In the end, Addyman notes that attention is the key. He puts it simply: “The best way to make a baby laugh is to take them seriously.”