What can a newborn see?

When are newborns able to focus and actually distinguish people and objects?

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Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

It used to be we thought that newborns could see very little during the first few months of life. However, better and more sophisticated testing techniques have proven these assumptions wrong. In fact, newborns are able to see and distinguish objects within the first few weeks. Their eyes are not great at focusing, so optimum distance for seeing an object is between eight to 15 inches. This is fortunate since this corresponds to the distance between the mother and child's face while breastfeeding. More accurately, this ideal distance most likely evolved because of breastfeeding.

It turns out distinction between colors is probably not very good until at least three months of age. This is the reason newborns tend to have the most attraction to contrasts of dark and light rather than brightly colored objects. It is this fascination of contrasts that have made the black-and-white newborn mobiles and toys so popular. Another interesting aspect of a newborn's vision is that it allows for preference of human faces. In fact, there is a portion of the brain that seems to be dedicated to allowing for this facial recognition. Newborn babies are naturally attracted even to rough sketches of human faces. This specific recognition mechanism helps facilitate bonding between the mother and child, particularly during breastfeeding.

A drawback to a newborn's vision is that the baby's eye muscles are both mildly weak and definitely uncoordinated. So, even though the vision may advanced enough to recognize shapes and contrasts, the muscles of the eye make it difficult to both focus and follow these objects. Most parents are familiar with the cross-eyed look newborn babies can give. However, this poor coordination of the eyes to move as one unit becomes less of an issue by three months of age.

Mitch, studies are still being done to fully understand what a newborn can and can't see. But, undoubtedly, as we learn more, we will continue to be amazed at what these little creatures really can do.

I hope this helps.

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