It used to be thought that babies could not see very well and put no meaning to what they did see. We now know that babies, although short-sighted and unable to focus very well, can see quite adequately and can take an interest in the things they see. They will spend longer looking at something that is patterned, textured or moving than at a plain, untextured or static object.
The eye muscles of newborn babies are very weak, making it difficult for them
to focus. They only see things clearly that are about 20 cm away from their faces. The images babies receive are blurred and flat, and, as they do not distinguish colour clearly, the colours are muted. However, even at only a few hours old, babies follow interesting objects with their eyes. Because they are more stimulated by pattern and movement, they enjoy looking at faces, and especially faces that soon become familiar to them, such as their parents’.
The general pattern of vision development
• From birth to six weeks The baby can see things fairly clearly only at a distance of 20 cm, and will concentrate on objects that interest her (because they are moving, patterned, or have depth) for a few seconds. As the baby is unable to move her head easily, she will only focus on objects within her line of vision.
• From six weeks The baby can focus on an object held about 45 cm away from her eyes. If the object is moved from side to side she will follow it with her eye movements – this is referred to as tracking. She will look at an object very seriously, but if she sees a person she is familiar with, she may respond with smiles and cooing noises.
• From three months The baby will stare fixedly for several minutes at an object, so learning what familiar objects look like. She can control her head movements better and will be able to turn her head to look at things, and will therefore enjoytoys and mobiles. When she is in her pram at home or on a walk, she can be propped up to watch things that interest her.
• From six months The baby will be learning to co-ordinate her eyes with her movements. She will reach out for a moving object; she will be curious about new sights and will concentrate deeply on new toys and objects. She will be very interested in her own hands and feet, examining her fingers and trying to grasp her feet as she waves them in the air.
• From eight months The baby will be able to see very small objects and her eyes will be able to pick out fine detail. Her eyes will have the same range and abilities as an adult’s.
The baby’s vision can be stimulated right from the start by surrounding her with interesting pictures and mobiles, by moving objects across her pram and cot, and by putting a mirror on the nursery wall and on the side of her bed. As the baby uses her eyes she is learning.