Ever wonder whether your baby can really see her crib mobile, or whether your cell phone ring alarms her? The fact is, infants perceive things very differently than adults do. Babies use their five senses to take in information, react to their environment, seek nutrition and comfort, and bond with their caregivers, says Ray Tsai, M.D., president and chief medical officer of Children’s Health Pediatric Group in Dallas. Some senses, like touch and hearing, are fully developed at birth. Others, such as sight, take several months to mature. We'll tell you what to expect and what you can do to stimulate each of your baby's senses.
At first, your baby is only able to see 8 to 12 inches away, and his vision is fuzzy. He sees mostly shapes and shades—whether something is big, small, bright, or dark, says Dr. Tsai. By 4 months, your baby will see farther and use his eyes to track moving objects, and by 5 months he’ll have more depth perception. Somewhere between 4 and 6 months, he’ll be able to see all colors. And by the time he's walking and crawling, between 8 and 12 months, he'll be able to use his depth perception to judge distances as he explores.
What you can do: Decorate the nursery in bright colors and bold patterns. Change the position of your baby's bassinet and feed him on both sides to help get him used to seeing from different angles. You can also put your face in your baby's line of sight, and then talk or smile; that allows him to focus on your face and watch your movements. Start playing games like pat-a-cake and peekaboo at about 4 months to help his hand-eye coordination. You can also give him opportunities to take in a variety of sights—try the park, the zoo, or a walk through the neighborhood. When something catches his eye, give him time to inspect it thoroughly.
A baby's hearing starts to develop while she's still in the womb, so your child will be familiar with your voice when she's born, says Peter Jung, M.D., chair of pediatrics at Houston's Memorial Hermann Memorial City Hospital. She may startle when a door slams because newborns are sensitive to changes in sound. But once she's asleep don't be surprised if she snoozes through even the loudest noises, says pediatrician Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. At first, your infant will be easily distracted by background noise. At about 2 months, she’ll begin to try to mimic sounds by cooing, and she’ll become a babbler around 4 months. By around 6 months, she may mimic specific sounds you make.
What you can do: Talking, reading, and singing to your baby helps build her personality, encourages language development, and promotes bonding, says Dr. Tsai. Try using a singsong-y voice to get her attuned to the different tones and patterns in speech, recommends Stephen J. Marquis, M.D., a pediatrician in Appleton, Wisconsin. You can also let her enjoy the sounds of daily life and describe to her what she's hearing. For babies who have trouble getting to sleep, turn on a white-noise machine; it's soothing because it replicates the low, steady sounds of the womb.
Touch is one of the best-developed senses at birth. Babies are able to distinguish among different temperatures, textures, shapes, and even weights of objects right away, says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School. Touch is also absolutely crucial to bonding. Cuddling your baby will make him feel warm and secure, as will swaddling because it re-creates the confined feeling of the womb. And yes, babies explore through touch, and their preferred tool is their mouth. So don't worry if he sucks or chews on anything he can get his hands on, Dr. Jana says. Just make sure you give him things that are safe and clean. Once she has more control of her hands and arms, she’ll reach out and grab anything within her reach.
What you can do: Hold your baby often. Skin-to-skin contact is especially therapeutic for newborns, doctors say. Simply rubbing on some lotion after a bath is soothing, too, or you can try some gentle massage moves. Let her feel different items on her skin, such as a soft stuffed animal or a bumpy ball. When she’s older and more hands-on, give her toys of different shapes, sizes, and textures.
Your baby has a good sense of smell from the start. She gets to know your scent on Day 1 and probably recognizes the scent of other people in her life within about a week. "Babies are especially sensitive to the smell of breast milk and can even distinguish it from formula," says Nicholas J. Tapas, M.D., a pediatrician in Glenview, Illinois. This can cause problems around 3 or 4 months, when it's time for them to start sleeping through the night. If you come in to comfort your baby, just know she'll smell you and may want to be fed. Your baby also uses smell to learn about the environment around them and identify comfort and possible danger.
What you can do: Dr. Marquis recommends using the same products regularly, because babies like familiarity. But nix heavily scented products while you're breastfeeding. “Try to avoid scented detergents and heavy perfumes, because they can confuse your baby by masking the pheromones that you produce,” says Dr. Tsai. To build his sense of smell, expose him to many scents. Tell him what each smell is and you’ll boost his language development too.
Your baby’s taste buds were fully formed the day he arrived. He was born with a preference for sweets, and he’s able to detect the flavors of the food you’ve eaten through your breast milk. That’s why he may seem less than thrilled to nurse after you’ve eaten pretzels, and insatiable after you’ve had a piece of cake.
What you can do: Eat a variety of foods while breastfeeding. Starting around 6 months, introduce your baby to a variety of foods and flavors, says Nimali Fernando, M.D., coauthor of Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater. This will give him a head start on experiencing the array of tastes found in a healthy diet. Of course, if your family has a history of food allergies or if your baby has eczema, you should talk to your doctor before feeding him any new ingredients.
If you suspect that your baby has a vision or hearing problem, take her to the pediatrician to get checked out ASAP. Hearing loss is the most common congenital problem, and diagnosing it early is especially vital because it can interfere with learning language. Dr. Nicholas J. Tapas recommends whispering in each of your baby's ears: If she giggles or wiggles after you whisper into one ear but not the other, something may be wrong. Many states require hospitals to do a hearing screening at birth, which should catch some potential problems, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants have their eyes checked at the hospital. If your baby didn't have an eye exam, have her tested by 6 months. Until then, look for asymmetry between the eyes, excessive redness or discharge, drooping eyelids, and abnormally shaped pupils (check your baby in an evenly lit room).