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Your Newborn's Developing Senses

Parents and pediatricians used to believe that babies emerged from the womb with little capacity to perceive their surroundings. Now we know better. A growing interest in infant brain development has given us new insight into how newborns use their budding senses. "Babies are much more aware of the world around them than researchers once thought," says Philip Kellman, Ph.D., a psychologist who directs the Cognitive Science Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. The newest research shows that at birth, an infant has the ability to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel.

What's more, scientists also believe that how a baby uses these senses in the early months of life is critical to future development. Even before a baby is born, nerve cells inside the brain are busy creating pathways that allow him to process and store information he gathers from his environment. Research suggests that each sensory experience a baby has -- nursing at the breast, hearing soothing lullabies, seeing his parents' delighted smiles -- helps those pathways form, thereby enhancing brain development.

What your baby feels:

The sense of touch is one of the first to develop and is operational by the time a baby is born. Infants use touch to learn about their environment. The gentle touch of a parent can not only soothe babies but actually help them grow. "Nurturing touch releases growth hormones," explains Duke University researcher Saul Schanberg, M.D., Ph.D. "In infants who are deprived of that touch, the genes that react to these hormones shut down." In other words, these infants actually stop growing -- a phenomenon that has been documented in understaffed orphanages. By contrast, Dr. Schanberg's research with premature infants has demonstrated the remarkable healing powers of a parent's touch. "Our studies have found that being held and caressed actually helps preemies grow more quickly," he says.

What's more, gently massaging a baby has been shown to reduce levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Researchers at the University of Minnesota discovered that babies who were given twice-weekly massages over a six-week period tended to be less irritable and to sleep more soundly than other babies.

Boosting your baby's skills:

You can help your baby develop his own sense of touch by letting his fingers come into contact with different textures: soft and cushiony, smooth, bumpy -- being careful, of course, to keep him away from extreme temperatures and rough textures. And you can use your own touch to communicate your love. Massage your baby by gently kneading his arms, legs, hands, and feet. Or calm him by cradling him in your arms. Feeling the warmth of your skin and the gentleness of your caress is the easiest, most natural way for your infant to bond with you.

What your baby hears:

A baby's capacity to hear develops even before birth. Peering into the womb via ultrasound, scientists have observed fetuses reacting to loud noises at 24 weeks' gestation.

At birth, an infant is already able to recognize specific sounds. For example, nursing newborns will suck harder at the sound of their mother's voice, says Joanne Roberts, Ph.D., a hearing and language researcher at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. And by around 4 months, a baby can localize sound -- that is, figure out where a noise is coming from.

The structure of the ear -- though fully developed -- is very delicate in infants, making them particularly sensitive to volume. Too much noise can actually cause ear damage, according to Lynn Luethke, a scientist at the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communications Disorders. Experts advise parents to shield their babies from very loud noises and to give them some silent time each day away from TVs, telephones, and noisy siblings.

Boosting your baby's skills:

Talk, read, and sing to your baby. "The sound of adult voices helps prime a baby's brain, making her more receptive to learning language skills later in life," says Karen DeBord, Ph.D., a child-development specialist for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Studies have found, for instance, that hearing the rhythm of the spoken word helps children learn to read when they get to school. "It doesn't matter that your baby can't yet understand what you say," Dr. DeBord says. "She'll learn the patterns and rhythms of her native language."

What your baby sees:

At birth, newborns have limited sight. To their eyes, the world looks like a blurry photo. "Newborns can clearly detect only things that are in very high contrast, such as black-and-white patterns," says Albert Yonas, M.D., a professor at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development.

Still, infants can process what little they do see almost instantly. "Within 24 hours after birth, you can put up a videotape of the mother's face and another face, and the baby will gaze at the familiar one," Dr. Kellman says.

A newborn's vision improves steadily as eye cells mature during the first two months of life. By 8 weeks, an infant is capable of discerning color and some detail. At around 4 months, he begins to develop binocular vision -- that is, the ability to focus with both eyes at once. This new skill gives him depth perception, which helps him learn to reach for objects.

By 6 months, a baby is able to notice features like shadows, shading, perspective, and relative size. Their new visual skills serve infants well, as they learn to crawl around this time. With the primary vision skills in place, the next six months are devoted to fine-tuning: A mature sense of sight is fully developed by the age of 1 year.

Boosting your baby's skills:

The best way for parents to encourage visual development in their baby is to interact with him. "A loving face is the best visual stimulation an infant can get," Dr. Yonas says.

High-contrast toys, such as blocks and mobiles with black-and-white or primary color patterns, also help stimulate visual development. And pictures of shapes and patterns have been found to engage the parts of the brain controlling vision. So don't hesitate to expose even a young baby to simple picture books.

What your baby tastes and smells:

Researchers are just starting to understand the olfactory senses in infants and to explore the role they play in brain development. They do know, however, that taste and smell are closely related.

Scientists suspect that the sense of smell develops largely after birth. Within the first week of life, however, a newborn is capable of recognizing the scent of his own mother. One study showed that at 5 days old, babies could smell the difference between a breast pad that had been used by their mother and a new pad. Formula-fed babies have also exhibited the ability to distinguish their mother's odor from other scents. "The sense of smell is very important for infant bonding," says UCLA's Dr. Kellman.

Other studies have observed babies reacting differently to a variety of smells; one study actually found infants exhibiting signs of pleasure when exposed to fruity scents, like a lemony after-shave lotion.

At birth, a baby is capable of detecting three of the four main tastes: sweet, sour, and bitter. Of these, most babies show a marked preference for sweet tastes, says Gary Beauchamp, Ph.D., director and president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia.

The one basic taste a newborn can't perceive is salt. "If you were to give a newborn salty water, he would drink as much as he would plain water," says Dr. Kellman. Researchers suspect that the salt receptors on the tongue develop after birth, probably by 4 months.

Boosting your baby's skills:

Researchers are not aware of what, if anything, can be done to enhance a baby's budding olfactory senses. However, parents can discover any sensitivities a baby might have by gauging her reactions to the smells and tastes she's exposed to. If you are breast-feeding, you may notice that the foods you eat affect your baby's sucking. As your baby gets older and begins to eat solid foods, you can expose her to different flavors to see if she exhibits any preferences.

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