When Do Babies Become Ticklish?

Featured image of happy father tickling baby

No matter who you are and what you do, you have been involved in a tickle fight at least a few times in your life. It could have been with your siblings, friends, relatives or parents, but there were times when you laughed your guts out and had a hard time catching your breath.

This seems so second-nature to us now, but have you ever wondered about when you became ticklish and started to perceive the sensation in the first place? Or whether it is a good idea to tickle a toddler or baby at all? Most people think tickling can’t be wrong since it causes the person on the receiving end to laugh uncontrollably, but studies have shown that this may not always be true. You might even know somebody for whom tickling isn’t a pleasant experience at all, as research has shown it can also be painful.

Issues with tickling

Tickling kids is an easy way to get them laughing for sure, but this isn’t necessarily true in the case of babies. A few babies might produce a smile in response, but most don’t really like the experience, similar to those adults we mentioned earlier.

Tiny babies have a tough time communicating their real feelings, so it’s difficult for them to let you know even if they don’t enjoy the sensation. Apart from crying, which is a pretty clear sign that you should probably stop, there’s no mechanism for the baby to show you how they feel. So experts say that tickling should wait until your baby grows up a bit, and can communicate more clearly. Until then, stick to light touches on the feet and belly and avoid any even mildly aggressive tickling.

Image of happy smiling baby

What does the science say?

Right about now you might be thinking that this is all a bit ridiculous. What could possibly be so wrong with tickling? I mean, your kid is laughing when you tickle them, and it’s all a bit of harmless fun, right? Well…

Laughing when tickled is somewhat of an automated response that you come preprogrammed with when you’re born. Think of it as something adjacent to sneezing or coughing. You can’t really control it, at least not without a significant amount of effort. Knowing this, it becomes a bit more evident that tickling doesn’t necessarily constitute a pleasant experience for your kid. In fact, many children report painful experiences even though they were laughing.

Things get even worse when you think about the fact that, because of the automated response of uncontrollable laughter, your kid can’t tell you that they are actually not enjoying the experience. There’s also a social tendency to keep tickling someone if they try to escape or ask you to stop because they are laughing and it just seems like a good time, which doesn’t help.

All of this leads us to the obvious question – is there any point in tickling a baby at all? Some studies are indicating that tickling can lead to faster development of speech, or in other words, get your baby talking earlier. However, this is only partially true. In fact, the thing that gets your kid to talk earlier is not strictly tickling, but physical contact in general. Babies have a powerful sense of touch, and the sensation of touch has been linked with faster development of language skills.

In practice, this means you should associate some words or sounds with certain kinaesthetic sensations. For example, touching your kid’s chin while saying a word should lead to them learning to open their mouth and say that same word after some repetition.

On the flip side, there’s a rumor that tickling your kid will cause them to stutter later in life, which discourages some parents from tickling their children whatsoever. You should know, however, that this rumor is unsubstantiated, and there is no actual evidence to back it up. Stuttering does often begin to manifest early in a child’s development, but there is yet to be a conclusive discovery of the causes.

Image of girl tickling smiling baby

So what should we do?

Children and parents need times together that involve lots of playful contact and laughter. It is hard to overstate the importance of physical contact when it comes to a healthy emotional upbringing. Parents generally get addicted to tickling because it’s a bit of a shortcut to both laughter and playful physical contact. It is the easy way to get quick reassurance that our kids love us and that they are happy. But instead of forcing laughter in this way, we can find other kinds of play that may require a bit more effort, but will also produce a better result. Tickling matches may have been a part of our childhoods, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily have to be a part of your child’s. Having a less stressful and more imaginative way of engaging with your kid can get you farther than simple tickling ever could.

Our children need our affection and lots of it. Sometimes the best way to communicate to your child that you love them is to be persistent with your affection to the point of exhaustion. Nibbling toes and fingers, blowing raspberries on their tummy and other moves are all likely to bring a ticklish reaction, so does that mean you should stop doing these? Of course not. What you should do is let your kid breathe between laughs, make them short and controlled and make sure your child is actually comfortable with what you’re doing.

Being thoughtful about play doesn’t mean you have to be ‘walking on eggshells.’ What it means is you should put a little bit more thought and care into your choices when it comes to playing with your kids and trying to have a more evenly matched balance of power throughout the interaction. When tickling is reduced, that opens up more room for more creative types of play, as well as games that will work to expedite your child’s social and emotional development.

Author: Jonathan M. Ward
Author: Jonathan M. Ward

Himself a father of two, John is obsessed with getting the most out of every children’s product on the market, finding value wherever it can be found. His years of study in developmental psychology coupled with his passion for parenting make him an invaluable asset to our team.

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