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The 6 stages of a baby’s visual development
Medically reviewed by Sharon Copeland on 03 March 2021
Babies are born with a visual acuity of about 20/400, however, their overall visual development will rapidly improve within the first two years of their life. A child's visual development begins before birth. How you care for your own body during your pregnancy is extremely important for the development of your baby's body and mind, including their eyes. Proper nutrition, including appropriate supplements and having enough rest is important during your pregnancy.
Avoid smoking and consuming alcohol or drugs during pregnancy, as these toxins can cause multiple problems for your baby, including serious vision problems.
During this time, it is important that they are given regular checks and that you look out for signs and symptoms of common eye conditions that may affect babies and young children.
The overall eye development of babies takes place in phases, with each part of their visual capabilities improving as they grow.
After birth, your doctor or nurse will briefly examine your infant's eyes to rule out signs of congenital cataracts or other serious neonatal eye problems. The examination cannot tell you how well your baby can see.
One of the first things you may notice about your baby’s eyes are their size. Normal infant development begins from the head downwards. At birth, your baby’s eyes are already 65% the size of a grown adult’s eyes. When a baby is born, they can barely just make out light and large shapes and recognise large moving objects. For the most part their vision is blurry and they cannot see beyond this.
Babies should still react in the following ways:
- Pupils should change size when exposed to light
- Their eyelids should close when faced with bright lights
- Their eyes and head should turn towards light
- They should watch the mother/carer’s face when feeding
You may notice that your baby’s eyes wander, this is because they haven’t yet learned to fix their eyes and track objects. Do not be alarmed if your baby appears not be able to focus on one object, or in one direction. At birth, a baby can only see black, white and shades of grey as the nerve cells in the brain and retina that control their vision have not yet fully developed. This is the same for premature babies too.
At this stage, your baby will also undergo an eye examination from a doctor to rule out any symptoms of congenital cataracts or other serious neonatal diseases or infections.
2. 1 Month
During their first month, babies can typically see between 20-30cm away – that’s about the average size of a ruler and enough to see the face of whoever is holding them. They can also begin picking up on facial expressions, although at this point, it’s unlikely they will mimic them.
Your doctor will typically examine your baby’s eyes for any symptoms of congenital cataracts or any other potentially damaging vision problems. These should be treated as early as possible to avoid future complications.
To speed up and maintain your child’s interaction, try and avoid making any major changes to your appearance. Studies have shown that babies prefer looking at a familiar face (i.e their primary caregiver) than at the face of a stranger and making drastic changes to your appearance may cause some slight confusion.
At this point, your baby will slowly begin to develop their ability to focus their eyes and may be able to do so for very brief moments of time. You may also notice that your baby can follow objects such as a small toy passed in front of their face.
3. 2 – 3 Months
A significant number of advancements take place during the 2nd and 3rd months of age during your baby’s development.
At this stage, your baby’s eyes will be more coordinated and better able to follow moving objects, without necessarily moving their head. You may also notice that your baby will reach out to grab things they can see nearby. Their increased ability to see and vision development, also means an increased sensitivity to light. A 3-month old’s light detection threshold is around 10 times that of an adult. At this phase, you’ll want to start dimming the lights more during afternoon naps and at bedtime, although you may want to keep a dim night light to provide some sort of visual stimulation if they wake up from their sleep.
Talking to your baby as you walk around the room and making subtle changes to décor, or the location of their crib, also increases stimuli. Babies should begin to follow objects with their eyes and reach for things at around the age of three months. Other ways to check their eyes are reacting in the correct way as they grow are:
- Looks at human faces with great interest
- Social smile present at 6 weeks
- Eyes follow a moving toy at approx 20cm
- Looks around when held upright
- Both eyes move to look at toys held close to face
4. 4-6 Months
At 6 months, your baby will be able to see all the colours of the rainbow clearly and their visual perception will have leapt from around 20/400 from birth to around 20/25 now. Their eyes will be far more coordinated, and they’ll be able to follow, locate and move objects, such as a bottle, into their mouth. Control of their eye movements and their eye-body coordination skills will continue to improve.
While a baby of this age cannot fully participate in an eye exam, ie: reading letters from a chart, there are other ways of testing visual acuity and detecting common eye problems such as astigmatism, short-sightedness and long-sightedness.
By 6 months, the vision centres of the brain have developed significantly, meaning your baby will now be able to move their eyes more quickly, follow moving objects more accurately and see things more distinctly. 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 5 months of age.
This is often a very heart-warming part of a baby’s development as they’ll be able to fully recognize your face and may begin mimicking your facial expressions such as smiling and puffing out cheeks. They’ll also be able to recognise objects like their favourite toy, having only seen a part of it.
5. 9 Months
At nine months, your baby’s eye colour will have fully developed, though you may see minor changes in the following months. Their vison will be a lot sharper and they’ll be able to pick up much smaller objects and reach for objects nearby a lot quicker. Moving towards 10-12 months, they’ll start attempting to pull themselves up and start crawling. Parents should encourage crawling rather than early walking to help the child develop better eye-hand coordination.
6. 12 – 24 Months
At 12 months, your baby will be able to recognise people they see on a regular basis from afar. Their perception of depth and distance is far more developed, and their hand-eye coordination will have improved greatly. By 2 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 looking and listening. They recognize familiar objects and pictures in books and they’ll also be able to hold crayons in their hand and draw.
Babies at this age are a lot more confident exploring the world around them and interacting with their surroundings, they’ll be better at judging distances and grasping objects. It's also a time that requires greater diligence from the parent to keep the baby from harm. Bumps, bruises, eye injuries and other serious injuries can occur as they begin to physically explore their environment. At this stage they’ll be learning how to coordinate their vision with their body movements.
Don't be concerned if your infant's eyes are beginning to change colour. Most babies are born with blue eyes because darker pigments in the iris aren't completely developed at birth. Over time, more dark pigment is produced in the iris, which will often change your child's eye colour from blue to brown, green, grey or a mixture of colours, as in hazel eyes.
Quick links:What effect does technology have on my child’s eyes?
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A guide to congenital cataracts