Can You Tickle Babies? Safety, Myths And Alternative Ways to make them laugh

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Many of us resort to tickling babies to make them laugh. While most babies break into giggles while being tickled, it is impossible to tell if the baby likes it or not. Just like adults, not all babies like being tickled. Moreover, due to their limited language skills, it may be difficult for babies to communicate if they enjoy or dislike being tickled.

So, should we ever tickle the babies? Read this post as we tell you if you can tickle your babies, when babies begin to understand tickling, and alternative ways to make a baby laugh.

When Can You Tickle A Baby?

There is no fixed age to begin tickling your baby. As a general rule, it is best to try tickling your baby after they are six months old. It is the age when babies usually develop the ability to make sounds to express happiness or discomfort (1). A six-month-old is likely to voice their displeasure of being tickled if they don’t like it.

When Do Babies Understand Tickling?

They are quite sensitive to touch, Tickle babies

Image: iStock

It is not precisely known whether babies understand tickling and at what age they begin to develop a sense of it. Research indicates that babies are quite sensitive to touch up to the age of six months and can accurately tell the spot being touched on their bodies (2). This sensitivity gradually fades away after the age of six months, and a touch, such as a tickle, may not cause a sensory overload.

Younger babies are sensitive to touch, but they only register it as an elemental touch and cannot associate it with a tickle. Once older than six months, babies may better perceive a touch as a tickle and associate it with fun or laughter.

Experts say
According to Trung Tristan Truong, MD, a pediatrician at Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, “A newborn may not necessarily prefer or dislike being tickled owing to a possible relative lack of other sensory awareness as well as an undeveloped social relationship (7).”

How To Tell If The Baby Dislikes Being Tickled?

Sometimes prolonged ticking can irritate the baby. Also, touching the baby’s skin very lightly can make them ticklish and irritated. A baby older than six months who dislikes being tickled is likely to display the following expressions and signs of displeasure when being tickled.

Your baby may try to roll away

Image: iStock

  • Grimace and teary-eyed
  • Sounds of displeasure
  • Pushes hand away
  • Tries to roll away
  • Older babies may crawl away when tickled

Some babies may find tickling painful. Also, forceful laughter induced by tickling may cause some babies to gasp for air. In such cases, you may notice the baby breathing heavily or gasping for air after being tickled.

When To Avoid Tickling The Baby?

It is best to avoid tickling a baby in the following scenarios.

  • Sickness or disease
  • During and after feeding
  • Baby is drowsy or sleepy
  • Sleep
  • Baby’s attention is preoccupied with something else

You must preferably avoid tickling the baby if they have a medical condition or have a physical limitation that affects their ability to communicate.

Impact Of Tickling On The Brain

Tickling is a complex sensory reaction to touch. The following are some general effects of tickling on the brain of human beings (3) (4).

  • Tickling is usually a touch with an element of surprise. Our brains can mostly predict the response to a sensation and can suppress it. However, when it comes to tickle, it is hard for the brain to predict the response, thus leading to the sensation of being tickled.
Tickling babies may surprise them

Image: iStock

  • When we attempt to tickle ourselves, there is no element of surprise. It is the reason why we usually cannot tickle ourselves.
  • Tickling is believed to be a defense mechanism similar to pain or itch. It may serve the purpose of alerting the person. It is probably the reason why some individuals find tickling uncomfortable or painful.
  • The skin over the belly, under the arms, and soles of the feet is usually the most sensitive to tickle in most persons. These parts of the body are also quite vulnerable. Therefore, from an evolutionary perspective, the nerves evolved to alert the person more quickly when being touched or tickled at these parts of the body.
  • The response to a tickle depends on an individual’s sensitivity to touch. Some are more sensitive to touch and quickly respond to even the slightest tickle.

Myths About Tickling

The following are some of the common misconceptions about tickling babies.

  1. Tickling helps the baby talk: Tickling results in laughter rather than helping the baby learn words. Gentle tickling can be used for physical bonding but cannot stimulate speech.
  1. Tickling causes stuttering: There is no evidence of tickling being a cause of stuttering. Stuttering could occur in toddlers due to various reasons, including a family history of stuttering (5). If your toddler stutters, consult a pediatrician or pediatric speech therapist.
  1. Tickling works as an exercise for babies: Tickling causes one to laugh, which burns calories. However, the calories burned are not sufficient enough to warrant tickling to be a form of exercise for babies. Several indoor and outdoor physical activities make for better exercise than tickling.
Quick fact
Babies do not have a specific attachment to the touch or tickle of any particular person, as they cannot link the touch with the person tickling them (8).

Other Ways To Make Babies Laugh

Play peek-a-boo with them

Image: iStock

If your objective is to make the baby laugh, you may consider the following alternatives to tickling.

  • Play peek-a-boo and other games, such as chasing the baby while they crawl. These games could make the baby giggle while also improving their developmental skills.
  • Make strange voices, such as slurping of liquids or sounds of animals, to elicit laughter.
  • Play pretend play with toys by acting out a funny story.

Alternative Ways To Bond With The Baby

You could try the following methods for establishing a secure attachment with your baby (6).

  • Singing to the baby in your own voice
  • Massaging with baby oil
  • Bathing the baby
  • Performing exercises for babies
  • Rocking and cuddling
  • Reading books
Quick tips
Mimicking your baby’s voice and mirroring their actions are also effective ways to bond with your baby (6).

You may tickle babies to make them laugh; however, before you do so, make sure the baby enjoys the action. Although there is no fixed age to tickle babies, it is safe to do it only after they turn six months, as they would then be able to express their approval or displeasure. Even though tickling is harmless, every child would not appreciate it. Therefore, if the baby is teary-eyed, tries to roll away, is sleeping, or is sick, avoid tickling them. If your baby does not like getting tickled, you may choose other methods, such as playing or making funny faces, to bond with them and make them happy.

Infographic: Precautions To Take While Tickling A Baby

Hearing your baby’s giggles and laughter can be one of the most joyful experiences. But tickling babies is not as simple as tickling adults and children. Since they cannot express their emotions well at this stage, you must ensure that you are careful while tickling them so that they are not uncomfortable. Use this infographic to understand the things you need to be mindful of.

precautions to take while tickling a baby [infographic]
Illustration: MomJunction Design Team

Key Pointers

  • It is usually safe to tickle a baby once they are six months old, although they may not be very sensitive to it.
  • Do not tickle the baby if they squirm or display discomfort. Never tickle a baby while they are asleep or feeding.
  • Some alternatives to bond with babies and make them laugh are peek-a-boo, blowing bubbles, singing, or rocking them in your arms.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. Important Milestones: Your Baby By Six Months; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
2. What Really Happens When You Tickle Babies; Boston University
3. Michael Hinck, Interesting Facts About Tickling; Jamaica Hospital Medical Center
4. Why are you so ticklish?; Penn State University
5. Stuttering in Toddlers & Preschoolers: What’s Typical, What’s Not?; American Academy of Pediatrics
6. Building a Secure Attachment Bond with Your Baby; HelpGuideOrg International
7. What Happens In A Baby’s Brain When They’re Getting Tickled? Experts Explain; Memorial Care
8. What Really Happens When You Tickle Babies; The Nerve Blog; Boston University
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