Babies immune to contagious yawning, new research shows

The next time you’re tempted to fake out your toddler with an exaggerated yawn to make him feel sleepy, think again. New research shows babies and young children aren’t as susceptible to contagious yawning as the rest of us.

In fact, a new study out of the University of Stirling in Scotland reveals the earliest most children start demonstrating the behavior is age 5.

The phenomenon of contagious yawning has previously been tested with video sequences of yawns. But this study revealed that Powerpoint presentations of yawning babies and animals – even video clips of the child’s own mother yawning – had no effect on the child.

An earlier study that had parents keep a log of their child’s yawning for a one-week period also reported no contagious yawning.

“This suggests to us that the brain mechanisms that underlie contagious yawning are different to those that are involved in other kinds of imitation,” says Dr. James Anderson, the study’s lead author. “Even 1-year-olds are quite good at imitating behavior, but they don’t seem to show contagious yawning.”

Anderson says that although yawning has physiological benefits, adults tend to stifle yawns or forget to yawn due to busyness. But when they see someone else yawn, it serves as a reminder that yawning might be a good idea.

But very young children don’t have the same constraints, he says.

“They yawn whenever and wherever they want to. This in turn means that they are less tuned into others’ yawns as a cue that they themselves might do well to yawn.”

Anderson says most of the implications of the study involve child and brain development, rather than practical ones.

But for parents, the ramifications are clear: Next time the clock says bedtime, but your little one is wide awake, faking a yawn won’t do the trick. Just try your hardest to wear him out – or prepare to fight the bedtime battle.

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