Start-to-See

When Do Newborns Start To See?

A lot of parents worry about when their newborn will start to see. If you’re one of them, the answer is simple: your baby’s eyes are already open! 

Your child can see shapes and objects from birth but may not be able to focus on anything close up until they’re around a few months old. 

Babies learn to see over some time, much like they learn to walk and talk. They are not born with all the visual abilities they need in life. 

The ability to focus their eyes, move them accurately, and use them together as a team must be learned. 

Also, they need to learn how to use the visual information the eyes send to their brain to understand the world around them and interact with it appropriately.

From birth, babies begin exploring the wonders of the world with their eyes. 

Even before they learn to reach and grab with their hands or crawl and sit up, their eyes provide information and stimulation important for their development.

Eye and vision problems in infants can cause developmental delays. 

It is essential to detect any problems early to ensure babies have the opportunity to develop the visual abilities they need to grow and learn. 

Parents play an essential role in helping to assure their child’s eyes and vision can develop properly.

When Do Newborn Babies start to See?

The world is a new and fantastic place for a tiny baby. There are so many new skills to be learned. 

And just as your baby starts to talk, sit up, and walk, they’ll also learn to use their eyes fully.

While healthy babies are born with the ability to see, they haven’t yet developed the ability to focus their eyes, accurately move them, or even use them together as a pair.

Processing visual information is an essential part of understanding the world around us. 

Vision and eye problems in infants can lead to developmental delays, so it’s essential to be aware of certain milestones as your baby grows and their vision matures.

Babies aren’t born knowing how to see—they have to work at it. The visual part of the brain has to ‘learn’ how to see well.

So what do newborns see to start with? A blurry world. When a baby is firstborn, his eyesight is far from 20/20—and it won’t be perfect for a good three to five years. 

Newborn vision starts at about 20/400. That means life will look pretty fuzzy for those first few months. Plus, a newborn can hold his gaze for just a few seconds at a time.

Even if the baby’s eyesight isn’t functioning fully, she needs to keep practising. I like to use a saying with parents: ‘If a baby doesn’t use their vision, they’ll lose their vision. 

Having an excellent visual experience is critical [from the start.] Any impediments to getting a clear, focused image to the brain will cause a loss of vision in a child and a condition called amblyopia. 

To make sure the baby’s eyes are in good shape and that her reflexes are functioning, she’ll have her first eye exam in the delivery room or nursery the day she’s born. 

Your pediatrician will continue to examine and monitor the baby’s eyesight at each good visit.

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When Can Babies See Color?

You’ll have to wait a bit for that particular ability to kick in. Newborn vision is too weak to distinguish colour, which is why black and white and high-contrast toys are so great for young infants. 

But as the baby’s eyesight strengthens in the weeks following birth, she’ll begin to pick up different hues—especially red and green—and will soon be able to see all colours. 

In studies, babies have been shown to respond to red, green, blue and yellow starting at age three months and up. 

Pastel colours may still prove tricky at this point, but the baby will continue to improve her sight and by about five months will have good colour vision, though not as fully developed as an adult’s.

Steps in Infant Vision Development

At birth, babies can’t see as well as older children or adults. Their eyes and visual system aren’t fully developed. 

But significant improvement occurs during the first few months of life. The following are some milestones to watch for in vision and child development. 

It is important to remember that not every child is the same, and some may reach certain milestones at different ages.

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Birth to 4 Months

At birth, babies’ vision is abuzz with all kinds of visual stimulation. While they may look intently at a highly contrasted target, babies have not yet developed the ability to quickly tell the difference between two targets or move their eyes between the two images. 

Their primary focus is on objects 8 to 10 inches from their face or the distance to the parent’s face.

During the first months of life, the eyes start working together, and vision rapidly improves. 

Eye-hand coordination begins to develop as the infant starts tracking moving objects with their eyes and reaching for them.

By eight weeks, babies begin to more easily focus their eyes on the faces of a parent or other person near them.

For the first two months of life, an infant’s eyes are not well coordinated and may appear to wander or be crossed. This is usually normal. However, if an eye appears to turn in or out constantly, an evaluation is warranted.

Babies should begin to follow moving objects with their eyes and reach for things at around three months.

5 to 8 Months

During these months, control of eye movements and eye-body coordination skills continue to improve.

Depth perception, which is the ability to judge if objects are nearer or farther away than other objects, is not present at birth. 

It is not until around the fifth month that the eyes can work together to form a three-dimensional view of the world and begin to see in-depth.

Although an infant’s colour vision is not as sensitive as an adult’s, it is generally believed that babies have good colour vision by five months of age.

Most babies start crawling at about eight months old, which helps further develop eye-hand-foot-body coordination. 

Early walkers who did minimal crawling may not learn to use their eyes together as well as babies who crawl a lot.

9 to 12 Months

At around nine months of age, babies begin to pull themselves up to a standing position. By ten months of age, a baby should be able to grasp objects with thumb and forefinger.

By twelve months of age, most babies will be crawling and trying to walk. Parents should encourage crawling rather than early walking to help the child develop better eye-hand coordination. Babies can now judge distances fairly well and throw things with precision.

1 to 2 Years

By two years of age, a child’s eye-hand coordination and depth perception should be well developed.

Children this age are highly interested in exploring their environment and in looking and listening. 

They recognise familiar objects and pictures in books and can scribble with crayons or pencils.

Signs of Eye and Vision Problems

The presence of eye and vision problems in infants is rare. 

Most babies begin life with healthy eyes and develop the visual abilities they will need throughout life without difficulty. 

But occasionally, eye health and vision problems can develop. Parents need to look for the following signs that may be indications of eye and vision problems:

  • Excessive tearing may indicate blocked tear ducts.
  • Red or encrusted eyelids could be a sign of an eye infection.
  • Constant eye turning may signal a problem with eye muscle control.
  • Extreme sensitivity to light may indicate an elevated pressure in the eye.
  • The appearance of a white pupil may indicate the presence of eye cancer.
  • The appearance of any of these signs should require immediate attention by a doctor of optometry.

What Parents Can Do to Help With Visual Development

There are many things parents can do to help their baby’s vision develop properly. The following are some examples of age-appropriate activities that can assist an infant’s visual development.

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Birth to 4 Months

In the first week after birth and up to 3 months, the baby can focus only on objects and people that are close up, about 10 to 12 inches from her face.

That’s about the distance between the baby and the loved one holding and feeding her, which suggests humans are built to connect. 

If a baby isn’t paying attention to a parent’s face or isn’t starting to follow moving objects during this time, a visit to a pediatric ophthalmologist may be to determine whether there’s a newborn vision problem.

Around three weeks of age, the baby can begin to hold her gaze slightly longer, averaging about 10 to 12 seconds instead of just a few. 

Don’t be alarmed, though, if your newborn’s eyes appear to cross or wander. In the first few months of life, the baby’s eyes can look a little crazy, like they aren’t working in a perfectly coordinated way. 

It’s common for a baby’s eyes to cross during the first eight weeks and wander up to 4 months of age.

However, sure signs could hint at potential problems. Alert your doctor if you notice that baby’s eye or eyes:

  • Stay fixed in a crossed or deviated position for an extended period
  • Repeatedly flutter or move rhythmically
  • “Shimmer” or jiggle involuntarily
  • Have a yellow or white reflection (instead of the usual red)
  • Have white pupils

As the baby’s vision strengthens, he’ll begin to focus better and at slightly farther distances—meaning instead of just zeroing in on Mom; he can see other people who are nearby too. 

Get ready for heart-melting moments as the baby starts to smile and respond to you and your partner!

This is also the stage when the baby starts moving her eyes without turning her head—and using those newfound skills to track objects in motion. 

Initially, the brain isn’t well developed enough, but by 2 to 3 months, the baby should fixate on an object and follow it as it moves through space. 

By three months, she’ll start shifting her head and body to reach for those moving objects, making it a perfect time to capture the baby’s attention with easy-to-grasp rattles and other sensory toys.

  • Use a nightlight or other dim lamp in the baby’s room.
  • Change the crib’s position frequently and change the child’s position in it.
  • Keep reach-and-touch toys within the baby’s focus, about eight to twelve inches.
  • Talk to the baby while walking around the room.
  • Alternate right and left sides with each feeding.

5 to 8 Months

The world will take on a whole new hue at the four- to the six-month mark when the baby can see colour and perceive depth better. 

This is when both of the baby’s eyes should be looking in the same direction and working together to process information. 

Red flags to look out for include poor visual behaviour, such as not following objects or faces; crossing or wandering the eyes; or abnormal red reflex. 

While the baby’s range of vision and eye-body coordination skills will continue to improve, the baby’s vision clarity and depth perception are almost fully developed by six months.

9 to 12 Months

  • Play hide and seek games with toys or your face to help the baby develop visual memory.
  • Name objects when talking to encourage the baby’s word association and vocabulary development skills.
  • Encourage crawling and creeping.

1 to 2 Years

  • Roll a ball back and forth to help the child track objects with the eyes visually.
  • Give the child building blocks and balls of all shapes and sizes to play with to boost fine motor skills and small muscle development.
  • Read or tell stories to stimulate the child’s ability to visualise and pave the way for learning and reading skills.

Other Baby Senses

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What Can My Baby Hear?

Your baby has heard sounds since way back in the womb. 

Mother’s heartbeat, the gurgles of her digestive system, and even the sounds of her voice and the voices of other family members are part of a baby’s world before birth.

Once your baby is born, the sounds of the outside world come in loud and clear. 

Your baby may startle at the unexpected bark of a dog nearby or seem soothed by the gentle whirring of the clothes dryer or the hum of the vacuum cleaner.

Your baby loves to hear your voice, so talk, babble, sing, and coo away. Take particular advantage of your baby’s own “talking” to have a “conversation.” 

If you hear your baby make a sound, repeat it and wait for them to make another. You teach your baby valuable lessons about tone, pacing, and taking turns when talking to someone else.

Babies this age seem to respond best to a higher-pitched voice, which is why most people naturally raise the pitch of their voices and exaggerate their speech when talking to a baby. 

This is fine — studies have shown that “baby talk” doesn’t delay speech development. Responding to your baby encourages speech. 

Feel free to mix in some regular adult words and tone with the baby talk. It may seem early, but you’re setting the stage for your baby’s first words.

Besides voices, your baby will probably enjoy listening to music (play a variety of styles) and may be fascinated by the familiar sounds of life as well. 

Keep your baby nearby as you rattle pans while making dinner, and let them sit in a baby seat within earshot of older siblings laughing and playing. 

Baby rattles and musical mobiles, and toys are other good ways to stimulate your baby’s hearing.

Your newborn probably had a hearing screening before being released from the hospital (most states require this). 

If not, or if your baby was born at home or at a birthing centre, it’s essential to have a hearing screening as soon as possible. 

Most children who are born with hearing loss can be diagnosed through a hearing screening.

What Can My Baby Taste and Smell?

Your baby can taste and smell and will favour sweet tastes over bitter ones. 

For example, a baby will choose to suck on a bottle of sweetened water but will turn away or cry if given something bitter or sour to taste. 

Likewise, babies will turn toward smells they favour and turn away from foul odours.

Though sweetness is preferred, taste preferences will continue to develop during the first year. 

Studies show that a mother’s diet can affect the way her breast milk tastes. 

These first flavours can help shape flavour preferences later on. For example, a mother who ate spicy foods while nursing is likely to have a child who grows up to favour spicy foods.

For now, breast milk or formula will fully satisfy your baby.

Why Is Touch Important?

It won’t be long before your baby is reaching out and touching everything. But now, your baby depends on you to provide touch. 

Babies know they’re loved and cared for when they’re held, hugged, and kissed.

Make it fun, too. Your baby will respond joyfully to a game of “This Little Piggy” as you touch your baby’s toes or fingers. 

Introduce different textures and temperatures: the softness of a feather, the hardness of a wooden block, the relaxed feel of a window in winter. When babies feel the world around them, they learn about life.

If You’re Worried

If you want a little reassurance that your baby’s senses are working well, you can do some unscientific testing for yourself.

For example, if you’re worried about your baby’s vision, notice if your baby watches your face closely. 

Does your baby watch move objects? Your baby may appear cross-eyed when trying to look at something close. 

This is usually normal in the first few months. Let your doctor know if your child’s eyes turn in or out.

If you’re worried about your baby’s hearing, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the baby startle at an unexpected sound?
  • Does the baby respond to the sound of your voice, even if they cannot see you? (Your baby’s response might be to turn toward your voice, stop crying, smile, or get excited and move their arms and legs.)
  • Does the baby respond to music and other sounds in your environment?

If you’re still worried about your little one’s hearing or vision, talk to your doctor. The earlier problems with seeing and hearing are found, the better they can be treated.

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