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Tickle Me Toddler

Why getting your tyke to giggle is great – and five ways parents can nurture it

There's something about hearing your baby's first laugh (usually around 4 months of age) that sticks with you. Equally memorable is the first time your toddler's true humorous side comes out and he actually responds with hearty chuckles to a funny moment. His ability to perceive humor grows as his cognitive and verbal skills mature.

Experts say those laugh-out-loud responses are indicators of your baby's growing smarts – and it reflects what's going on in his brain. He's understanding his world more. And, when something doesn't fit expectations, like, if you put a shoe on your head instead of your foot, he finds the absurdity hysterical.

If you want your child to grow up feeling safe and confident in his comedic efforts, be jocular and play along with the punch lines (which – be forewarned – tend to get repetitive, once kids know they can get a rise out of you!). Here are fun ways to nurture your little one's budding sense of humor.

1. Surprise him. "Regardless of age, we laugh when we're surprised," says Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D., author of Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love. That's why peek-a-boo – Mom's gone. Now she's back! – is a guaranteed laugh riot for babies and toddlers. Take the game up a notch by having your child "hide" under a blanket while you search for him ("Where did Jake go? Maybe he's hiding under this cup!"). React with surprise when he emerges. Another way to entertain your tot: Conceal a toy under a scarf or behind your back and swap it for a different one while he's distracted.

2. Get wacky with words. As language comprehension develops, toddlers start responding to verbal humor, particularly in rhymes, silly names and nonsense words (app-oos and banoo-noos anyone?). "Many of the developmental stages of humor are tied to a child's language skills," says Maureen O'Brien, author of Watch Me Grow: I'm One-Two-Three. Toddlers' growing cognitive and verbal skills also mean they'll also get a rise when you mislabel things (calling a shoe a shirt or calling the dog by the fish's name). Another knee-slapper: Try using your child's name in nonsense chants.

3. Be playful. Sometime after your child's first birthday, he starts to appreciate and understand physical or visual jokes. Pretending a banana is a telephone or turning a mixing bowl into a stylish hat will put him in stitches because he's become familiar with the routine functions and names of specific objects. It's hilarious (to him) when his expectations are playfully challenged by simple incongruities.

4. Get physical. Toddlers squeal when the tickle monster comes out to play. If just the sight of "tickle fingers" is enough to get your child giggling, it's because he's come to associate your actions with the frolicking that follows. At this age, horseplay is a perfect way to generate laughter. Now that your child's more mobile and beginning to understand pretend play, you can walk on all fours like a dog, taking pratfalls when she pushes you or pretending she's too heavy to lift. The goofier you act, the harder your child will laugh.

5. Expose him to funny business. Amuse your child with humorous books and silly games and songs. Toddlers love picture books that focus on something surprising or obviously out of place, like just about anything by Dr. Seuss. Modify traditional games like Ring-Around-the-Rosie by substituting "we all fall down" with "we all spin around" or "we all quack like ducks." Play comical tunes like Raffi's "Shake My Sillies Out" or take turns making up funny lyrics to familiar songs like "Row, row, row your ... house."

By teaching your children to embrace life's silly side – and showing them that it's OK to laugh at themselves – you're giving them a powerful tool for coping with life's anxious moments.

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