Communication is crucial when caring for a baby with vision problems. Here are ways to help keep your little one's development on track.

close-up of baby's face
Credit: Jim Franco

Babies aren't born with perfect vision. In fact, a newborn's eyesight is so poor that he can't see anything farther than 10 inches away. For most babies, eyesight continually improves over time, but, unfortunately, this doesn't happen for babies who have visual impairments. According to a 2011 Cornell University report, less than 1 percent of children under age 4 are visually impaired, meaning they have some degree of vision loss that is not improved with glasses. "Vision problems in infants can be caused by genetic disorders like albinism and Down syndrome. Prematurity puts babies at risk for a potentially blinding condition called retinopathy of prematurity. Babies can also be affected by cataracts or glaucoma, which are more commonly associated with older people," says Mary Lou McGregor, M.D., codirector of the Multidisciplinary Low Vision Clinic at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Most children with visual impairment can see to some degree. You may be concerned about how your infant's limited sight will affect your ability to care for him. But vision is just one of the senses that babies use to explore and understand their world. Follow these tips to foster your baby's development.

Feeding. When using a bottle, choose one with a colorful pattern or a colored ring around the nipple. Encourage your baby to look at the bottle and guide her hands to touch it during feedings. This helps her develop awareness and curiosity about objects. When your baby is ready to start solids, pick a bowl that provides contrast between the color of the bowl, the food, and the high-chair tray. For example, a dark blue or red bowl placed on a white tray contrasts clearly with light-colored cereal. Let your baby explore the empty bowl and spoon with her hands before you begin feeding her. Because your child may not be able to see the spoon coming toward his mouth, try gently tapping her lip with your finger or spoon first.

Sleeping. Even an infant with vision problems should have a darkened room to signify that night has arrived and it's time for sleep. "Visually impaired infants can be more sensitive to sounds when falling asleep, so keep noise to a minimum during naps and nighttime," Dr. McGregor says. Because your baby may have problems determining when you're around, talk to him as you leave or enter his room. Give him some verbal and tactile cues before picking him up from his crib so that you don't startle him. For example, you can stroke his arm while saying "I'm going to pick you up now." Soon he'll associate your words and touch with being held.

Reaching Milestones. Many babies that are visually impaired have other disabilities, and this affects their overall development. Amazingly, children that have only a visual impairment usually crawl, walk, talk, and reach other developmental milestones on target with their sighted peers. But early intervention services, including evaluations by physical, occupational, and speech-language therapists, can ensure that your infant's progress is on track. Your baby is eligible for these services free through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Exploring. You can help your baby understand the happenings around him by describing what you're doing and describing objects. Let your baby touch things to help him get a sense of how they feel and how they might look. Keep in mind that your baby may respond to your interactions a little differently. For instance, instead of waving his arms and kicking excitedly when you talk to him, your baby might be still so that he can better hear you. "A parent's face is very visually stimulating for an infant," Dr. McGregor says. "Get close to your baby's face when you talk to him."

Reading. Reading to your infant is the most important thing you can do to foster language development. Even though your little one might not be able to clearly view the words on a book page, she still gets a boost from daily reading sessions. "Choose sensory books that employ textures and sounds to engage your baby even more," Dr. McGregor suggests.

Safety. Once your baby becomes mobile, you'll want to take the same safety steps any other parent would to ensure that your baby can safely explore his surroundings. This includes using baby gates to block stairs, putting childproof latches on cabinets, covering electrical outlets, and placing protective corner bumpers on sharp edges. As much as possible, keep items like toys and diaper bags off the floor where your newly toddling tot might trip over them. To help identify possible danger spots that may not be evident from your adult viewpoint, crawl around on the floor and look at the world through your baby's eyes.

Playing. Toys that promote the use of several senses are great for visually impaired infants. A multisensory toy may make sounds, have different textures such as soft and bumpy, and light up or have bright, contrasting colors. Set up a safe area where your baby can easily find and play with her toys.