Why is yawning contagious?

Why do we yawn when we see babies yawn? The phenomenon is called contagious yawning,and it's very odd indeed.

Dogs yawn…and cats and monkeys…and even three-month-old fetuses (but not chickens). An average yawn lasts four to six seconds. We yawn more when we’re tired or bored. And trying to make it stop usually just makes another yawn pop right out. But surprisingly, we have no idea why we yawn. It’s a big medical mystery.

We don’t know why yawns are contagious.

We also have no idea why yawns are so contagious. At around four years of age, we develop an irresistible urge to join in when we see others yawning. Children with autism, however, are an exception. The more severe a child’s autism, the less likely he or she is to catch another person’s yawn. This finding led researchers to believe there is a connection between contagious yawning and the ability to feel empathy.

What does research say about why yawning is contagious?  

A 2014 study by Duke University did not show a correlation between contagious yawning and empathy. It found that the older a person got, the less susceptible they were to contagious yawning.

Buteven so, the study's author, Elizabeth Cirulli, Ph.D., concluded that contagious yawning still remains a mystery: "Age was the most important predictor of contagious yawning, and even age was not that important. The vast majority of variation in the contagious yawning response was just not explained."

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.