Even before birth, babies can respond when light is shone through their mother’s tummy. However, learning to see properly is like learning to walk and talk — it happens over a period of time.
When babies are born, their brain is not yet ready to process lots of visual information. Although it’s not known for sure how much colour they’re able to see, and everything looks a bit fuzzy, they can see faces within 20–30 cm. This is about the distance from their mother’s breast to her face.
In the first few weeks, connections in the brain are not yet strong enough for baby to co-ordinate both eyes together. Within a few days of birth, baby would rather look at mum’s face than the face of a stranger, and it’s important that dad and mum make eye contact when they’re cuddling baby. Baby will be fascinated by faces, and will soon begin to smile when mum or dad’s face is close.
During the first couple of months, baby can’t tell the difference between subtle colours, and may prefer to look at black and white toys and books — it’s easier for baby to focus on images with strong shapes and contrasts.
3 to 4 months old
From about 3 to 4 months old, baby can see all the colours. Baby can now co-ordinate both eyes together to focus. Being able to see better helps baby learn to reach and grasp. At about 4 months, baby develops depth perception (how far away things are) and hand–eye co-ordination. This is when baby begins to reach out to touch and pick up toys. Anything that’s not safe for baby needs to be put out of reach.
Giving baby interesting things to look at and explore will help develop curiosity. They don’t need expensive toys — simple toys and safe household objects can provide plenty of stimulation.
Baby may also enjoy watching other people and having birds, flowers and other interesting things from nature pointed out. They may also closely watch mum and dad’s mouth movements as they talk. This can help with language development.
6 months old
By about 6 months, their vision is maturing and babies can examine and explore their toys closely. They become better at holding their toys and judging distances. Their developing eyesight helps them co-ordinate their vision with their body movements as they learn to sit, crawl and walk.
Reading stories and letting baby see the words and pictures helps strengthen pathways in the vision centres of the brain. They learn from watching others around them and will imitate behaviours and actions they see.
As baby becomes more mobile and begins to explore their world away from their parents' arms, they’ll turn to look at mum or dad’s face when there’s something unfamiliar in their environment. Baby will read parents’ cues — facial expressions, tone of voice and body language — to see how they should respond. This is called ‘social referencing’ — baby is learning about the world alongside a trusted parent.
Regular vision checks
Well Child/Tamariki Ora vision checks are important during the early years. It may be difficult for parents to tell on their own if baby has any problems with vision.
- Newborn babies can see 20–30 cm — from their mother’s breast to her face.
- Mum and dad’s faces are baby’s favourite sights.
- A very young baby will be more interested in black and white pictures or pictures with strong contrasts.
- Reading books with baby helps to develop their vision.
- Babies may use social referencing in unfamiliar environments.
The ‘Te hinengaro mīharo’ sections in the SKIP Whakatipu booklets give parents simple neuroscience information to support them with their parenting:
- Te Kākano, page 21 — brain cell growth in the womb
- Te Kākano, page 33 — responding to light in the womb
- Te Pihinga 1, page 21 — vision helps with learning language
- Te Pihinga 3, page 8 — using all the senses to get information
- An experiment by Joseph Campos: The visual cliff
- Baby Centre: Developmental milestones — Sight
- Zero to Three : Baby brain map
This material is written for the Parenting Resource by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa