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Guide to Your Newborn's Senses

Have you ever looked down into your newborn's face and wondered what goes on in her world? Can she smell the flowers that bloom in your garden? Is she soothed by the touch of your hands? Is she excited when she hears music? The answer to each is a resounding yes, of course. With the exception of sight, babies arrive in the world with most of their senses fairly well developed. Their sensory experiences, in fact, start long before they enter the world outside the womb.

These early experiences are far more than practice hearing or tasting -- they're how your baby gets to know you and begins to form a strong parent-child bond. Read on to find out what your baby is experiencing in her new world.

The Nose Knows

At birth, babies are already veteran sniffers, as the olfactory senses are mature by the end of the first trimester. Amniotic fluid takes on the odor of everything you eat and drink, so in utero, your baby smells -- and acquires a preference for -- the scents of everything you eat. Studies of French mothers who drank a sweet anise-flavored beverage during pregnancy found that their babies had a clear preference for the scent of anise after birth, while babies whose moms did not drink anise showed an aversion or neutral response to the scent.

Babies like sweet smells, but lemon is also a favorite. But it's the smell of Mom herself that newborns love most. One study found that just one day after birth, babies preferred breast pads worn by their lactating moms to those of another lactating woman. Babies are very attracted to their mother's unadorned body smell -- so don't worry about the occasional skipped shower. Your baby will actually appreciate it!

A Matter of Taste

Eight weeks after conception, your baby is beginning to develop taste buds. By 14 weeks, baby's taste buds are mature, and she samples all of Mom's favorite foods by swallowing amniotic fluid. Long before she takes her first sips of formula or breast milk, she begins to enjoy the sweet flavor of ice cream or savory richness of pizza. At birth, babies relish sweet flavors above others, a natural preference that ensures a penchant for the sweet taste of breast milk. As with the sense of smell, your baby is likely to prefer familiar flavors -- namely those you ate during pregnancy. So if you craved carrot soup and baked squash, you may raise a veggie lover! In another study of infant taste preferences, babies whose mothers drank carrot juice while pregnant and nursing enjoyed carrot-flavored cereal more than babies whose mothers did not.

Loving Touches

From the start, your baby can recognize a soothing touch, distinguish a warm sensation from a cool one, and experience the pleasure of a loving massage. Research shows that touch can evoke powerful responses in babies; infant massage is a surefire soother, and premature babies who undergo touch therapy typically gain weight faster. So do babies enjoy touching things as much as they enjoy being touched? Not at first. Though newborns are as capable of touching and feeling as older babies, they usually explore with their mouths rather than with their hands until they hit the 4- or 5-month mark. After that, the sky's the limit -- your baby's curious little fingers will do everything from exploring the contents of her cereal to tugging at your hair.

Did You Know? What's usually the fastest way to soothe a crying baby? Snuggle together while gently stroking him. Your touch has an amazing power to communicate love.

The Eyes Don't Have It

Unlike the other senses, sight is not well-developed in utero, even though your baby can open and close her eyes at around 32 weeks of gestation and distinguish between light and dark inside the womb. Some moms report that shining a flashlight on their belly will cause their baby to move toward or away from the light.

To a newborn, the world appears as a blurry, black-and-white place. She's limited to seeing things that are 8 to 12 inches away, just about the distance to your face when feeding her. No wonder she loves looking at you! Babies prefer looking at the human face in general. At this age, babies can see high-contrast objects best -- they're especially drawn to the outline of the face or the hairline, which is easy to see because of the contrast. And a baby can see a stuffed panda bear more easily than a pastel bunny. Indeed, a newborn won't be able to see the varied hues of her baby quilt yet; around eight weeks, her ability to see colors begins to bloom and shapes take on more definition.

At about 4 months, her vision will improve. In addition to seeing colors, your baby will develop binocular vision, the ability to focus and perceive depth. (Before that her eyes may have crossed because she couldn't focus well.) Pair that with her emerging motor skills, and you get a baby who's primed for play -- she'll reach for toys, colorful earrings, and whatever else catches her eye.

The last visual milestone occurs at 7 months, when she develops monocular vision, the ability to focus and perceive depth using just one eye. Ultimately, these new skills will help her navigate crawling and walking.

 
They're All Ears

Long before baby hears you sing her to sleep for the first time, she's heard you talk to your spouse and chat with your neighbor. By week 34, snug in your womb, your baby can hear your heartbeat, the rush of your blood, and the comforting hum of your voice. How do we know? Studies have shown that newborns prefer the voices of their mothers over those of others; newborns will suck harder at the sound of their mother's voice than that of another woman's. In fact, babies come into this world hearing as well as adults do -- perhaps even better, as they have yet to attend their first earsplitting concert!

 

Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2004.

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.