Much has been made of the importance of a baby’s smile, and cross-cultural studies show that all human babies smile at about the same age, 3-5 months. As a father, this is one of the best ways to connect, because it’s gratifying to see them smile, and they will pay rapt attention, and start looking forward to your stimulating company. All it really takes are the simplest tricks, and a total lack of inhibition—at least around babies. Here are five ways for dads to make a baby smile, and probably even guffaw.
1. Pretend to sneeze: For some reason, this is like Saturday Night Live for babies. Ham it up, acting like you’re really going to have a big sneeze—the baby will stare at you, riveted, maybe even looking worried. Then fake sneeze in the most ridiculous way you can—try channeling one of the Three Stooges. Even very young babies you might have thought to be pre-humor will crack up. In fact, that look of worry suggests that the anticipation, and the catharsis at your fake sneeze, are probably what makes it so funny—that’s the basic structure of all jokes, and this is the first one they really get.
2. Toes in Beard: While the baby is on her back, pick up her feet and stick her toes right into your beard, combing them through with swooping motions like you’re trying to remove tangles. Don’t forget to look surprised and exclaim “Toes in beard!” as if the baby were doing something alarming to you. If/when you don’t have a beard, sideburns work fine; in a pinch, even you hair, if you’re not too fussy about your ‘do. Five-o’clock shadow is also good for tickling the bottoms of the toes and feet, and as a variation you can pretend to shave with the baby’s feet. Anything that involves the feet being on your face is good for them, including hiding your eyes behind the feet and then saying “Hey, where’d he go?” while trying to look around.
3. Neck attack: While holding baby, turn your head and get right in there to kiss the baby’s neck repeatedly, making loud smacking and snortling noises. Works even better with a little stubble, which tickles. This is one of the few tricks that work from earliest babyhood until they’re old enough to make you knock it off, like around ten.
4. Stinky feet: While the baby is on his back, hold up one foot and say, “Let’s see if this foot is clean.” (Once the baby is talking, you can ask instead, which adds to the fun.) Smell the foot, rolling your eyes around as if considering carefully, and say, “Oh, yeah, what a nice clean foot!” Then pick up the other one, ask if this one is clean, put your nose up to it and immediately howl “Oh, stinky!” Once they can talk, they’ll ask you to do this one over and over, like 25 times. My 7-year-old, whose feet really do get stinky by now, is still trying to get me to do it again, even though I’ve been refusing for years.
5. Chicken surprise: when the baby is old enough to sit up in a bouncy seat or high chair, get directly behind them, put both hands on your sides and flap your elbows behind your back like chicken wings. Walk slowly from side to side where the baby can’t quite turn enough to see you, making quiet bock-bock noises. When you get to one end and the baby finally sees you swoop in and peck at the nape of their neck with your nose, excitedly rattling off, “Bock! Bock-bock-bock-bockawk!” Repeat, headed in the other direction.
All of these shticks will have their rapt attention, and they’ll be begging for more once they can communicate. You, of course, will get tired of it after a few minutes, but it’s always nice to feel like you left them wanting more, and with very young children, the more you do it, the funnier it gets.
– James di Properzio
James di Properzio co-wrote The Baby Bonding Book for Dads, published March 2008 by Willow Creek Press, with his wife, Jennifer Margulis, a writer and photojournalist.