The first time your child laughs at a TV show – the magical developmental milestone no one tells you about

Robyn Wilder

I own, conservatively, 5 trillion instructional books on parenting.

Some of these books offer ways to “hack” your child’s bedtime – by shushing them aggressively until they are terrorised into sleep, for instance, or hypnotising them into slumber by intoning bedtime stories in a slightly creepy whale-song soprano.

Others measure childhood in a series of “developmental milestones”, like “first roll on to his back”, or “first time following a light with her eyes”. “First time laughing at a TV show” isn’t on any of the lists (I mean, I assume it isn’t; what parent has time to read an actual book?), but it should be, because, when I was a new mum, that’s where it all started to come together.

Since (his admittedly tricky) birth, my first son, Herbie, has been a terrible sleeper – only falling asleep if physically attached to a warm parental body; waking several times during the night, apparently furious that his father and I had tricked him into this sleeping business; and rising obscenely early the next day.

On this particular January morning, the moon still sailed high in the black sky, and the central heating was hours away from clicking on. I wrapped my wide-awake baby against me in my fleecy dressing gown, plonked us both in front of the TV, and tried to unglue my eyelashes.

New parenthood can be a grind, especially if your baby is a bad sleeper; like my son. Of course, I loved my baby beyond all measure. I loved his sapphire-blue eyes, and his single flaxen cowlick, high thigh-dimples, his inexplicably French accent. However, by the time he was six months old, I was averaging less than four hours’ sleep a night – and attempting to return to the workforce – so essentially I was a burnt-out husk of a woman.

But on this morning, as we sat there gently babbling at a toy giraffe (my son), and huddling over a mug of coffee for warmth (me), suddenly it happened. Suddenly, I heard it: the tiniest, tinkliest little laugh.

On TV, a brightly coloured clown was pratfalling and cartwheeling. My son was transfixed, his jaw slack, a smile tickling the corners of his mouth. Very briefly, he shot me a wondrous, are-you-seeing-what-I’m-seeing glance, and pointed at the television. “Ha,” he offered by way of explanation. Then the clown fell over and honked his nose, and my son erupted in a stream of giggles that came bubbling up out of him.

It was the best noise I’d ever heard.

My son had laughed before, of course, although he wasn’t initially an easy audience. For some months he refused to laugh, regarding his father’s and my silly faces and stuck-out tongues with all the impassive judgment of Joaquin Phoenix’s stone-faced Roman emperor in Gladiator.

Finally, we cracked it by blowing raspberries on his belly, and flying him through the air like Superman. But those were reflexive, sensory giggles and laughs of exhilaration.

This laugh was something new; not a tickle or an exciting new sensation, but a glimpse of the person he was becoming, and the personality that was growing beneath all those dimples. And in just a couple of seconds, I felt entirely differently about motherhood.

Sometimes the very early days of parenthood can feel like a really intense Tamagotchi challenge: someone has given you this little lump of life, and you must feed it, and care for it, and keep it alive at all times during the day – even when you are in the toilet.

But, after this day my husband and I recorded every instance of this cartwheeling clown we could find. And, as he continued to offer us daily shards of his personality – creating complex emotional dioramas using forks; a preference for elephants and the colour red – for a while we went a bit mad, showering him in forks and red elephants just to make him laugh.

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As a new parent, you can easily lose yourself to the minutiae of nappy changes, bottle-warmings, and breastfeeds; freaking out when it’s time to cut their delicate – but somehow razor-sharp – nails; wondering if anyone would notice if you popped to the shop in your pyjamas. You might forget that all this effort is in support of – not a Tamagotchi, or even a new pet you feel very strongly about – but an actual, bona fide person.

Albeit one who’s really into clowns.

My son’s first laugh was almost four years ago now. Today, he’s in his first year of primary school, and has a younger brother (who also loves laughing, and elephants). My older son’s passion for clowns has been replaced by a slightly frightening obsession with the Incredible Hulk (the other day, he hulked out in public, and roared so loudly he scared an innocent bystander), but he’s still recognisable as the little boy who was so tickled by the funny, falling-over man. He is sweet and funny and imaginative, with a wonderfully developed sense of the absurd.

And I can’t wait to see who he’ll become next.

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