Tickle a newborn and you probably won’t get as much as a giggle. Here’s when babies are most likely to become ticklish.
Most of us have fond memories of our babies’ first laughs. My little ones seemed to laugh over the smallest thing – a silly face, a game of peek-a-boo, or a raspberry on the belly. While nearly anything would make them laugh at the drop of a dime, tickling wasn’t one of them.
My children of course aren’t the exception. Most babies less than four months old are not ticklish according to an article in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.
“That’s because, according to new evidence, infants in the first four months of life apparently feel that touch and wiggle their feet without connecting the sensation to you,” says the study.
While newborns might not associate the sensation of touch with tickling behavior, that doesn’t mean that babies aren’t born ticklish. They just don’t experience it the same way as older children.
It takes time for babies to develop the skills needed to understand the data received from skin sensors and associate these inputs with pleasure.
What the Experts Say
“A baby’s usually smiling because she’s happy to be interacting with you. Because she may not respond to you that way until she’s around 2 months, tickling isn’t likely to inspire any response before then. Even after, her laughter doesn’t necessarily mean she’s enjoying it.”
Tiffany Field, Ph.D. Parenting Magazine
“The reason you can’t tickle a baby less than three months old is the same reason you can’t tickle yourself. Think about it. Tickling is a lot more than just the physical sensation of fingers in your ribs. It is the physical sensation of fingers in your ribs combined with the knowledge that you are the “ticklee” and someone else is the “tickler.”
Dr. Michael K. Meyerhoff, Romp n’ Roll
“For young babies, touches are just perceived as touches on the body – they’re not perceived as being related to what they are seeing or hearing, or perhaps even smelling.”
Sarah Cox, Goldsmiths University of London
“A possible reason for babies not being ticklish from birth is that they don’t have enough social awareness yet. Like a good joke, part of the hilarity is knowing what is about to happen; likewise, tickling is funny when you have the social awareness to understand what is about to happen.”
Lewis Pike, Guru Magazine
“Research shows that while they know they have been tickled, very young infants do not know where the touch has come from. It is only as they reach about six months of age that they learn to perceive their body and the space around it.”
Fiona Macrae, The Daily Mail
The Science of Tickling
There are several theories as to what makes someone ticklish. Some believe that tickling is a way to encourage social bonding. The act of tickling promotes laughter which keeps our relationships fresh and rewarding.
Others believe that being ticklish is a sort of defense mechanism. Laughing when being tickled in a sensitive spot sends a signal to show our submission to aggressors.
Tickling Young Babies
Many parents engage in tickle games to make their babies laugh. However, just like in adults some babies do not like the feeling of tickling.
For this reason, it’s best to wait to engage in serious tickling until your child is older and has the ability to voice his like or dislike for tickling, or is able to move away from your hand. However, it’s still okay to lightly stroke your baby’s feet or gently rub his belly to develop a physical bond.
After your baby is born, he’s exposed to a world of new sounds, smells, sights, and sensations. It’s not easy to make sense of all of it right away. Ticklish is one response that takes time to develop. In the meantime, find other ways to make your little one laugh, like a fun toy or kiss on the nose.