“Vision is not just a question of the physiology of the eye, but also of the brain,” says Canadian Paediatric Society spokesperson and consulting paediatrician Henry Ukpeh, in Trail, BC. When a baby is born, light allows the eyes to work, but there have to be pathways to the brain to interpret the images from the eye. As the baby experiences the world, that wiring is put in place.
A newborn’s vision is about 20/400, roughly 20 times poorer than an adult with 20/20 vision. Depth perception, colour vision, focus and acuity (detail) develop over the first year and beyond. Here’s how:
Imagine a dense fog. Shapes are muted, colours are difficult to perceive, depth and detail are obscured. That’s what a newborn sees. His focus is limited to breastfeeding range — a distance of about eight inches from his face to his mother’s. “Even then, because the peripheral vision is not yet mature, the mother’s face is blurred,” says Ukpeh.
When the doctor moves a bright light across your baby’s line of vision, he’s testing your baby’s tracking ability. Newborns can do it, but eye movement lags behind the bright object and moves in jerky steps. That’s because the wiring that makes for fluid tracking isn’t up and running yet.
What you can do • Give your baby lots of face time. Notice how his eyes focus on your hairline; that sharp line is easier for him to see. • Hang bold black and white patterns where he can see them. • Bright light is irritating and painful to the newborn eye, says Ukpeh, so dim the lights.
By three months
You might notice your baby fixating on a bright object, such as the ceiling fixture. The baby’s eyes are literally stuck. It happens as the brain’s visual cortex takes over. A baby who’s locked on to a bright object may need you to rescue him. This fixation has another important function; that intense gazing when directed at you nurtures your growing connection to each other.
His focus is a little better, though he’s not seeing detail very well yet. He can see the toy that dangles near him and may swipe at it with his newly discovered hands. He is drawn to light, can track through a 180-degree range, and sees reds, oranges and greens best.
What you can do • Young babies like to mimic your facial expressions. Try raising your eyebrows or puckering your lips, and wait for your baby to respond. When your baby turns away, it means he’s had enough. • Pairs of boldly contrasting colours are easiest for him to see. At this age, he sees red and orange or green best. • Let your baby hang out with the family so that he can track the dog or his brother galloping by.
By six months
Your baby can change his focus quite easily and sees farther away and in greater detail now that his vision has improved to 20/100. Blues and yellows are now part of his colour repertoire — but he may still prefer red.
His hand-eye coordination is becoming more precise; he can reach and grab an object. He’s really good at tracking now and his eyes move smoothly. If the cat moves out of his line of vision, he will turn his head to follow it. If he catches you looking at something, he’ll follow your gaze to discover what it is.
What you can do • Introduce your baby to some books with bright illustrations. • Talk about whatever you are seeing, such as the busy squirrels in the yard.
By one year
Your child now has both the manual dexterity and the cognitive ability to explore and interpret the world through sight. Peekaboo elicits squeals of delight because he’s figuring out that objects that can’t be seen still exist.
Your baby’s vision is probably 20/60 or better. Some get to 20/20 by their first birthday. Your baby will point at things and recognize shapes like a ball and a block. He detects changes in facial expressions and is beginning to recognize what they mean.
What you can do • Play lots of hide-and-seek games and look for toys that have parts that appear and disappear. • Give him chunky crayons and a big sheet of paper. Babies this age often enjoy brushing them on the paper to make linear marks.
It will be another year before your baby’s vision is fully mature, says Ukpeh. But he’s well on his way. The best thing you can do is continue to show him all the wonders his widening world contains.