Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Understanding Newborn Characteristics and Development


The Newborn's Five Senses

Your new baby is constantly receiving and responding to stimuli in his environment. By his seventh month in the womb, all of his senses were developed. As a newborn, he can already see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Some of the newborn's five senses need time to fully mature. Yet, from birth, he is ready to learn about his new world and everything in it.

Failure to stimulate his senses can have disastrous effects on his physical and psychological growth and development. Happily, you, as loving parents, know how to provide the right kind of sensory input for your baby. Let's examine the different ways you can help your infant learn about his world.

The Newborn's Five Senses

Touch.

One of the most important means you have for communicating with your baby is touch. Babies enjoy gentle handling and rhythmic motion. While inside the womb, your baby became accustomed to being rocked by your movements. After birth, that same swaying motion comforts him. A fretful infant often becomes quiet if you gather him close to your body and gently rock him.

Even the most mundane activities -- feeding and bathing him, changing his clothes and diapers, holding him, walking with him in your arms -- stimulate your baby's sense of touch and movement.

Smell and Taste. At birth, babies demonstrate that they discriminate odors by turning away from unpleasant smells. Your baby quickly learns to recognize familiar smells, especially your scent.

Although his taste buds aren't completely mature at birth, your baby can tell sweet from sour and much prefers the former. It is no coincidence that breast milk is very sweet.

Hearing. During the last trimester of pregnancy, a baby listens to his mother's muffled voice as well as to the sounds of her heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. When your baby's head is pressed against your chest, he no doubt finds those familiar sounds comforting, and many a baby falls asleep in this position. You may notice he selectively listens to higher-pitched voices. Even men unconsciously raise the pitch of their voices when speaking to babies. As your baby gains more control over his head movements, it becomes clear that not only can he hear, but he can accurately determine the location of a sound source.

Loud, sharp noises often upset babies. Soft, rhythmic sounds calm them. Music boxes, toys that make pleasant sounds, and soft music stimulate your baby's sense of hearing. He enjoys listening to you sing and talk to him. Soon the monologue turns into a delightful dialogue as he starts replying with his own babbling sounds.

Vision. Upon emergence from their dim intrauterine environment, babies exhibit a protective reflex of tightly shutting their eyes against bright light. This response is called the blinking reflex.

Once you and your baby settle into an environment more subdued than the delivery room, you will notice your baby scanning your face with wide-eyed interest. Although his visual system is immature, a newborn sees quite well at a distance of 8 to 12 inches from the bridge of his nose. Parents instinctively bring their faces that close to inspect the new member of the family.

Like an old-fashioned camera, your newborn infant has fixed focus: He is not able to adjust his eyes to clearly see images closer than 8 inches or farther away than 12 inches. He quickly learns to accommodate -- to focus the eyes with changing object distance. The ability to accommodate matures by four months of age. In fact, at this age, infants not only see distant objects well but can focus on very close images better than an adult can.

The muscles that move the eyes to help them both focus on an object to produce a single image are immature at birth. You may notice one eye or the other occasionally wanders. As long as that eye is not always deviated in the same direction, this wandering is normal. Visual coordination is much improved within a few weeks. By the age of six weeks, your baby can smoothly move both eyes in concert as he follows a moving object. By eight weeks, your baby converges both eyes perfectly when viewing a stationary object.

The ability of both eyes to focus on the same image is essential to the development of depth perception, the capacity to distinguish near from far. Infants younger than two months of age are probably not able to perceive depth. Your baby can discern relative distances by four to six months. His ability to estimate distances matures after he has the experience of reaching and crawling. Until your baby has had experience with propelling himself around his environment, he probably will not have any fear of heights. If you leave him on a raised surface, for instance, he will blithely scoot over the edge.

Color vision is probably immature at birth. Color discrimination is learned early, starting with yellow and ending with blue. By four months, babies can see all colors well and often prefer red.

Providing visual stimulation for newborns.

At birth, babies prefer bold colors and high contrast. At first, babies prefer geometric patterns with stripes and angles. Soon they shift their preference to circular patterns, such as a bull's-eye. Keep this in mind when choosing a mobile for your baby's crib.

Within three weeks, the most exciting image in his visual field is the human face. Because your hairline and your eyes offer the most contrast, at first he concentrates his gaze between your nose and your forehead. Between four and eight weeks of age, your baby may break into his first social smile while studying your face. At three months, he is able to distinguish your face from a stranger's. By rewarding you with a special smile, he lets you know he recognizes you. By four months, his vision has matured. Like you, he enjoys looking at objects that are colorful, novel, and in motion.

How do you know when your baby finds something visually interesting? An alert, calm baby responds to a pleasing object in his visual field by brightening his face and moving his arms and legs rhythmically. An active baby stops moving and carefully scans the object with his eyes. He signals to you when an object doesn't interest him or when he has had enough stimulation by turning away and withdrawing.

Avoid bombarding your baby with visual input during the first two months of his life. During this time, while he is getting settled, keep all stimuli low-key. In these first weeks, he is becoming familiar with his hands and should not be exposed to a lot of visual stimuli that distract him from that familiarization process. Later, when he has begun to master basic visual skills and has gained control over his head and hand movements, he will be ready to explore his visual environment. As always, take your cues from him.

As adults, we often learn by reading about a subject or seeing a picture of an object. But in order for a newborn to learn, he must experience his environment by tasting, touching, smelling, hearing and seeing. Your baby's senses are developing quickly, just as his body is growing with amazing speed. On the next page, you will learn just how quickly you can expect your newborn to grow and when his teeth will begin coming in.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.