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Eye & Vision Development in a Baby

by Sharon Perkins , studioD

When your newborn first looks into your eyes after birth, you might find it hard to believe he doesn't see well, given the intensity of his gaze. But newborns really don't have very good color vision or visual acuity, the ability to focus with clear, sharp vision. Your baby's ability to see does develop quickly in the first six months after birth.

Visual Acuity

If you're at all familiar with the standard vision chart -- the one with the big E at the top -- you probably know that 20/20 is considered normal vision. Having 20/20 vision simply means that you can see from 20 feet away what people with normal vision see. A newborn has 20/400 vision, according to All About Vision. This means he can see at 20 feet what most people can see from 400 feet away. The higher the lower number, the poorer the vision. In the first month, your baby's vision improves to about 20/120, according to the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. Before age 3 months, babies focus only on objects 8 to 10 inches away from their face, explains the American Optometric Association. By 6 to 8 months, your baby's visual acuity is around 20/25 to 20/30, or nearly normal.

Seeing Colors and Light

Your baby is born into a black, white and gray world, although that will change quickly. He can't see colors because nerve connections between the retina and brain haven't yet completely formed. But by 1 week of age, he can distinguish orange, yellow and green. It takes a little more time for him to distinguish blue and violet, because blue light has shorter wavelengths and because there aren't as many color receptors for blue light in his brain. By age 5 months, his color vision is normally well developed. When he's first born, bright lights generally don't bother your baby, since his threshold for light detection is much higher than yours -- around 50 times higher, according to All About Vision. By 2 to 3 months, his threshold for light perception is only around 10 times yours, so he may be more aware of bright lights and prefer a darkened room for sleep.

Coordinated Movement

If your baby looks a little cross-eyed at times, there's no reason for alarm; most babies don't coordinate their eye movements well until they're around 3 months of age. In the first two months of life, one eye might wander occasionally outward or towards his nose. If his eyes seem permanently crossed, tell his doctor. Babies don't have much depth perception until around 5 months, when the eyes begin to work as a coordinated pair.

Recognizing Faces

After just a few days of life, your newborn prefers looking at your face compared to others. Because he still doesn't distinguish fine detail, he focuses on boundary contrast, such as the boundary between your hair and the edge of your face. Keep your hairstyle the same to help him make this connection. By 2 months, he begins to concentrate more on facial features; by 4 to 5 months he recognizes your face.

Eye Color

The majority of babies are born with slate blue eyes, because melanin, the pigment that makes eyes and skin brown, generally isn't present in large amounts. Eye color normally changes sometime in the first three years of life. Eye color is a complex trait; two brown-eyed parents can produce a blue-eyed child, while two blue-eyed parents are far less likely to produce a brown-eyed child.

About the Author

A registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology, Sharon Perkins has also coauthored and edited numerous health books for the Wiley "Dummies" series. Perkins also has extensive experience working in home health with medically fragile pediatric patients.

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