The 6 stages of a baby’s visual development

Babies are born with a visual acuity of about 20/400, however, their overall visual development will rapidly develop and improve within the first two years of their life.

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.

1. Newborn

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, however, for the most part, their vision is blurry, and they cannot see beyond this.

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.

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 a bottle into their mouth.

While a baby of this age cannot fully participate in an eye exam, i.e 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.

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.

Their hand eye coordination would have improved, and they’ll be better at judging distances. They’ll also be able to grab objects with their thumb and forefinger.

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.

Babies at this age are a lot more confident exploring the world around them and interacting with their surroundings. They’ll focus while looking at large picture books and listen if you read to them, and they’ll also be able to hold crayons in their hand and draw.

Quick links:

What effect does technology have on my child’s eyes?
How can I tell if my child has eye vision problems?
A guide to congenital cataracts



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