As your little one looked back at you for the first time, you no doubt wondered what she saw and whether she recognized you. Scientists are also curious about what babies understand and when. In the past few decades, infant researchers have been using technological advances and creative methods to figure out how babies see their world. What they have discovered is fascinating, and -not surprisingly- babies put us adults to shame when it comes to how much their vision and undestanding of the world changes in the first few months of life. Let’s take a peek at some of what they’ve uncovered.
0-3 months: Faces win, especially smiling ones
First of all, babies see with their brain, not merely with their eyes, and this neurological development begins even before they are born. A few facts:
- A fetus responds to light through the uterine wall and even blinks in the womb.
- Just hours after birth, a baby will respond to lights, although vision is the weakest of the newborn’s senses.
- Babies can see in color from birth, but have difficulty differentiating similar tones. This is why they may focus longer on something high-contrast or black and white.
- Babies are fascinated with faces (especially up close) and they prefer happy to sad faces.
Many scientists think this preference for faces is a gift of evolution. Good survival skills would dictate that babies who are drawn to their caregivers from the get-go would do the best.
3-6 months: The world gets clearer and more colorful
Your baby’s vision will continue to be fuzzy and unfocused for a few months. Color vision doesn’t truly kick in until the 3rd month, which is why objects with high contrast (such as black and white) are so intriguing to them at first. Watch them as they:
- Stare at faces and objects intently for seconds at a time. By six months, their vision is often about 20/40. Not perfect, but strong.
- Scan their environment with purpose. Babies learn early on to focus on critical features rather than randomly scanning around the edges of objects.
- Shift their attention often. This is a good sign of growth, signalling that they are purposefully seeking information in their surroundings.
You may notice that your baby gets bored after a short while; this is perfectly normal You may also see that she starts to ‘lock in’ when she prefers certain objects or toys. If you have a pet, watch how baby searches for it and notice how her face beams when she finds what she was looking for. These are all signs her vision and brain are both growing and changing.
6-9 months: Baby’s body and vision work in sync
Around 8-9 months, your baby’s vision will reach adult clarity. Her vision and her thinking combine to create a new understanding of how the world works. She’s learning that objects and people exist even when she cannot directly see them. You’ll notice, for instance, that baby reacts differently when you move out of sight, or go into another room. She’ll often cry or even stretch toward you in anticipation of your departure. As she starts to roll over, reach for toys and eventually crawl, this improved vision also makes her a better judge of distances and depth. By 9 months, she’ll start to approach the edges of a cushion, then peer over and decide if it’s safe to go on. When she wants to grasp a toy (or Nana’s eyeglasses), she is no longer clumsy, but increasingly coordinated. These hand-eye and eye-brain advances are signs of her growing skills and will help her achieve upcoming gross motor milestones like crawling and climbing.
In just 9 months, your baby has grown from a newborn who is totally reliant on her caregivers to a curious, clear-eyed scientist who is viewing her environment with thoughtfulness and purpose. So, it’s important to note that one thing baby should not be spending time looking at is electronic screens. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for infants, because a baby’s brain is wired to learn best through personal interaction with people and three-dimensional objects. So, despite the educational claims of videos or baby apps, you can help your baby see the world best by providing her with a safe, visually diverse environment. Her rapidly developing brain will thank you.
Maureen O’Brien, PhD is a developmental psychologist, parenting coach and author of ‘Watch Me Grow: I’m One-Two-Three’, available at http://amzn.to/1QtvyFl. More parenting tips and resources can be found on www.destinationparenting.com.