Your Baby's Developing Senses

The ability to see, smell, and hear are among your baby's most important learning tools. Learn how their senses develop from conception through the first year.

baby senses
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Erika Silverman will never forget her son's reaction the first time she held him just seconds after his birth. "I was amazed to see Oren go from crying to calm as soon as our skin touched," says the mom from Charlotte, North Carolina.

According to the experts, Oren's reaction was typical. Like all babies, he was born with well-developed senses that helped him adjust to his new environment. When he inhaled his mother's scent, felt the warmth of her body, and heard her whisper, "hello," (a familiar sound from his time in the womb), Oren was immediately comforted.

"We have this impression that babies are helpless, but they absorb a lot of information with their senses to bond with their caregivers and explore things around them," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., the author of What's Going On In There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.

Read on to learn how your child's senses progress in utero and during the first year and how to stimulate your baby's senses.


Babies are born with the ability to see, but at first, their sight isn't very clear.

Developing fetus

By the third trimester, a fetus can detect bright light inside the womb. Depending on factors such as the gestational parent's abdominal fat, muscle, and clothing, enough natural light may seep in during the final two months for a baby to see their hand and leg movements.

But, even more than light, fetuses may be able to detect shapes, too. A 2017 Current Biology study found that fetuses could detect different configurations and preferred those that looked like faces.


Their vision is blurry, and they see things best from about 10 inches away (the approximate distance from your face while they're feeding). So high-contrast hues, including black-and-white patterns and primary color pairings, fascinate them.

2 months

They can keep a steady gaze on moving objects, such as a rotating mobile, says Deborah Orel-Bixler, Ph.D., O.D., professor of clinical optometry at the University of California, Berkeley. Within another month, they'll begin to focus on objects up to ten feet away, though they still won't make out fine details.

5 months to 1 year

At 5 months, a baby is developing eye-body coordination. You may notice this by how they look at something and then try to reach for it.

Around 6 months, they can focus at any distance and are mastering the idea of depth perception. That means when you push them in front of their swing, they "get" that the bigger you look, the closer you are.

By 12 months, their vision is virtually on par with an adult's.

How you can help

Help them develop their vision by:

  • Holding them close
  • Lying them on a colorful mat with mirrors during tummy time
  • Playing rhythmic hand games such as pat-a-cake and "open shut them"

Holding your baby close allows them to study the contrasts on your face—your dark pupils against the whites of your eyes, your hairline, or lipstick next to your skin.

Try a fun baby mirror with a bold border for colorful tummy time fun. They'll be mesmerized by their good looks and like the bright border.

Hand games are great for strengthening eye-hand coordination.


Babies have a strong sense of smell. And that's critical because odors can help strengthen social bonds, reassure infants in a parent's absence, help infants recognize their parents, and reduce newborn pain. In addition, a 2021 Science Advances study found that maternal body odor helps infants feel safer when interacting with a stranger.

Developing fetus

During the third trimester, Dr. Eliot says your baby can detect odors from the foods you eat and the aromas you inhale through your amniotic fluid. So yep, they smell your chili-dog fix.


Babies arrive with a keen sense of smell and recognize their parents' comforting scent. So when your infant catches a whiff of you, they might turn their head toward your breast, start moving their mouth (as if nursing), or stop crying, says Joy Browne, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus.

Plus, according to the Office on Women's Health, breastfed babies can also "sniff out" a parent because they recognize the unique scent of your breast milk.

How you can help

Exposing babies to various scents and telling them what they're smelling can help babies develop their sense of smell, suggests Marcia Levin Pelchat, Ph.D., a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

Here are some examples of safe household items and objects to place underneath a baby's nose:

  • Coffee
  • Ripe fruit
  • Herbs
  • Aromatic flavorings and seasonings (vanilla extract, cinnamon, paprika)
  • Crayons
  • Baby shampoo
  • Clean diapers
  • Leather shoes
  • Flowers

Just be sure they don't inhale or touch irritating spices, such as wasabi, powdered mustard, chili powder, or pepper, which can create a burning sensation in the back of their nose.


Babies are born hearing. In fact, they've been hearing you talk and sing in the womb for some time.

Developing fetus

At around 18 weeks, your baby can start detecting internal sounds, like your heartbeat, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). By 27-29 weeks, they can hear external sounds, like your voice. At term, they'll be able to hear as well as you! During the third trimester, you may feel them shifting in response to external sounds.


At birth, babies remember sounds from the womb, such as your voice and songs they've heard, according to research published in PLOS ONE. Further, there is evidence that they can discriminate between different speech sounds, such as "ba" and "da," and they'll shift their eyes toward noises around them, like a jiggling rattle, says Susan H. Landry, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and director of the Children's Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

3 to 8 months

At 3 months, your infant may attempt to duplicate sounds they hear—such as "ahhhh" and "ehhhh"—by cooing.

By 5 months, the excitement of hearing their own voice and your responses may turn them into a babbling machine.

Around 8 months, they understand the meaning of many words they hear, and as they inch toward 1, your child will be able to say a few of them even if they aren't perfectly articulated (such as "mil" for "milk").

How you can help

Help them develop their sense of sound by making music together with toy instruments, such as shakers and rattlers. Also, reading picture books and telling them what they're looking at can help them associate words with objects, Dr. Landry suggests. When they're around 8 or 9 months, ask them to point out things on the page ("Where is the bird? Can you show me?"). This exercise helps build speech skills.


Touch is a powerful sensory experience both in- and outside of the womb.

Developing fetus

Studies have shown that a fetus's mouth begins to develop feeling at about 7 weeks, according to Allen W. Gottfried, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences at Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California. By 14 weeks, much of the baby's head is sensitive to touch.


There's nothing a newborn loves more than skin-to-skin contact. Research published in 2016 in Pediatrics found that newborns who share bare-chested snuggles with their gestational parents (sometimes called "kangaroo care") may breathe better, experience less pain, have fewer infections, have fewer hospital readmissions, and breastfeed better.

At birth, your child can decipher differences in objects' texture, shape, and weight, says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School in Florida. During the first few months, infants explore primarily by mouth.

6 to 9 months

At 6 months, you'll see their little hands grab everything within reach, which helps them learn. Then, between 6 and 9 months (or once they start crawling), they can choose what they touch. You may notice your pets begin to hide from curious hands around this time.

How you can help

Help develop your baby's sense of touch by:

  • Transporting them in a carrier instead of a stroller for the closeness they crave
  • Giving them a massage
  • Taking baths together
  • Offering tactile experiences

Laying out different textured objects—carpet squares, stacking cups, squishy bath toys, foam shapes, and mildly abrasive sandpaper—is fun for babies. Then, as they touch and hold the objects, describe them for a fun tactile exercise.


Babies develop a sense of taste early in fetal development and are born with a penchant for sweets.

Developing fetus

A fetus's taste buds begin forming at about 7 weeks in utero. Then, according to the European Journal of Pediatric Dentistry, by about 30 weeks, a fetus will likely start sampling the flavor buffet in your amniotic fluid.


Your infant has an undeniable sweet tooth and welcomes breast milk and formula, which contain sugar. However, babies (and children, for that matter) aren't big fans of sour and bitter flavors. According to 2015 research published in Physiology and Behavior, this is protective—avoiding bitter flavors keeps kids from ingesting poisons.

4-6 months

Depending on the foods they're exposed to, babies' natural taste preferences can vary, according to a 2017 Nutrients study. At this time, infants are learning about the different flavors in solid foods, so exposing them to a wide variety of foods and flavors can help babies accept new foods more readily.

Repeated exposure is often necessary with less sweet foods. For example, it can take up to eight tries with green vegetables for babies to accept this new flavor.

Breastfed babies may be more open to a range of flavors because they're used to the changing taste of your breast milk (garlicky one day, mint-infused the next).

How you can help

Help develop your baby's sense of taste by:

  • Seating your baby at the dinner table so they can watch you eat
  • Eating some of your baby's portion when they refuse to eat it
  • Introducing spicy foods slowly

The more a baby sees you enjoying yourself—by saying "yum" after you take a bite, for instance—the more open they'll be to trying new foods, says Dr. Pelchat. Likewise, when your baby refuses their food, try saying, "Oh good, more for me," and then eat some of their portion. Doing so shows them that you think the food is tasty, and they may want to try it.

When it comes to spicy foods, you might mix rice with a drop of mild curry sauce or go light on the seasoning in taco meat, then build up slowly. By promoting a pleasant eating experience, you're improving their odds of having an adventurous palate.

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