The moment you lay eyes on your baby, you might wonder, can he actually see me, too? When can babies see, and what can they see when they do?
“Newborns can see, but everything is very blurry for them at first,” says Tanya Sitter, an optometrist in Olds, Alta. Your baby can make out light, movement and shapes, but can only focus on objects that are between eight to 12 inches away from him, which is about the distance to your face when he’s being held during feedings. That’s why faces quickly become an infant’s favourite thing to stare at. He’ll get to know every detail of his parents’ faces right away, a process that plays a key role in bonding during those early days and weeks.
Nicole Manek, a new mom in Toronto, noticed that her three-week-old son, Leon, has found something else he loves to stare at as well: the wallpaper in his nursery. She decorated it in a space theme, not knowing how much he’d enjoy the white stars on a black background. High contrast patterns, especially black and white, will be easiest for newborns to see, says Sitter. “They can distinguish some colours within the first few weeks, but we don’t know exactly how much they can make out.”
Specially designed high-contrast rattles and stuffies are likely to pique his interest, but these so-called “smart toys” aren’t necessarily going to speed up his ocular development. Same goes for mobiles, though one hung above his crib may prove a welcome distraction when he wakes in the middle of the night.
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“The best thing you can do is just interact with your baby as much as possible,” says Sitter. That means smiling, making funny faces and giving him lots of different things to look at. Everything from toys to ordinary household objects will be new and interesting. And you never know what might catch his attention. “We have a chandelier in our guest room and Leon can just stare up at the lights for hours,” says Manek.
Although newborns can see basic shapes, their eye muscles are weak and uncoordinated, making it hard for them to focus on, or follow, moving objects. Until your baby gets the hang of how to make his eyes work in tandem, it’s normal to notice one eye wandering. You may also notice that your infant sometimes has crossed eyes, but isn’t anything to be concerned about.
“I’ve said to my husband, ‘Oh no, Leon is cross-eyed again, look at him,’” says Manek. Sitter explains that as Leon’s eye muscles get stronger, this will eventually stop, but if it continues after the first two months, parents should make an appointment with an optometrist.
The eye doctor will check for what’s called strabismus, or misaligned eyes, which, in newborns, is often caused by muscle issues. It could also be amblyopia (lazy eye), which occurs when the pathway between one eye and the brain isn’t receiving the proper signals and nerve stimulation. Both are usually correctible conditions, especially if caught early.
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Your doctor will briefly examine your baby’s eyes at his routine wellness visits, regardless. He shouldn’t need a full exam with an optometrist until he’s between six to nine months, unless something doesn’t seem quite right. Make an appointment sooner if you notice that one of his pupils looks white (this could be a sign of congenital cataracts, which may require corrective surgery), or if one of his eyes is persistently red and running. Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, can be caused by an infection or a blocked tear duct and may need antibiotics to be cleared up.
Did you know?
Your baby’s depth perception and clarity — meaning sharpness and fine details — won’t reach a high level of acuity until he is about eight months old.
A version of this article appeared in our September 2013 issue with the headline “Vision quest,” p. 80.