Sensory and Physical Development
Developing the Five Senses
One key milestone of physical development between 4 and 6 months is the fine-tuning of your baby's ability to see the world around him. Compared with touch, taste, and smell, vision is a relatively primitive sense at birth; it is the only one of our five senses that gets no stimulation in the womb. But that's all right. A newborn doesn't need more than limited vision to begin learning to recognize the faces in his family or to see his own hands in front of his face. However, by 6 months of age, your baby's vision will develop to the point where he has depth perception, color vision, and well-controlled eye movements -- just as his increasing motor skills give him the ability to play with his own hands, kick at his mobile, touch his body or your face, or reach out and grab the objects you place in front of him.
Another new development: His improved vision will let him see the pattern formed by your face and recognize you from a distance. (Initially, he could see your nose, mouth, and eyes only as isolated features -- now she's putting it all together as "Mommy.") Of course, it's not just your face he can see at a distance. There are all sorts of other interesting things to look at, which means baby might get distracted. Just when you think your baby has settled to nurse, for instance, he pulls away from your breast to gaze around the room. This behavior causes some mothers to worry that their babies aren't eating enough at this stage, says Joshua Sparrow, MD, coauthor of the parenting series The Brazelton Way (Da Capo Press), or to perceive this lack of interest in feeding as a sign that their baby is ready to wean. Neither is true. "What happens at 4 months is that your baby can now take in a wider range of visual experiences," he says. So your baby may turn his head to follow his brother running across the room, or he might catch a flash of his grandmother's red sweater out of the corner of his eye and have to find out what she's doing. You may have an easier time nursing if you do it in a quiet, dimly lit room. If you are patient and talk with your baby about what he's seeing, and let him look to his heart's content, you will help him understand the world and improve his vision even more; when you allow him to look at different things, you are actually encouraging electrical activity between his brain cells, thus boosting his brain power.
Gaining Control of Their Bodies
Between 4 and 6 months, most babies start taking charge of their own actions. They will raise their head when lying face down, until eventually they can bear their weight on their arms and do a few push-ups. Your baby will suck on her toes to see how they taste, and she'll be so delighted by the sensation of a soft blanket on her skin that she may pull it across her face. She'll begin reaching for toys by 4 months -- though it's still easiest to hold them with two hands -- and by 6 months, she'll have the dexterity to grasp a plaything, examine it carefully, mouth it for texture and flavor, and transfer it from one hand to the other. When your baby wants a different toy, or even a different view, he may roll over and creep forward (or backward by mistake!) as he propels himself on his belly in a stealthy soldier move. At 4 months, too, your baby will be delighted to be propped up in a sitting position against some pillows, allowing him to see the world from a different vantage point while building muscles in his core. He will grow increasingly more stable until by 6 months he will have the coordination and muscle strength to sit alone if put in that position.
What Baby's Doing
- Month 4: Reaches for objects; coos and babbles
- Month 5: Rolls from front to back; shows emotions through expressions, body language
- Month 6: Vision is fully developed; sits up without support
Holly Robinson lives with her husband and their five children outside Boston.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2005.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.