Babies’ Senses

Babies are born fully equipped with all the necessary senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. However, some of these senses are less precise than others.

Below are some of the ways newborns express their senses.

A newborn’s eyes are a little more than half the size of an adult’s eyes. Eyes will grow the most in the first year.  Most babies have gray or blue eyes at birth, but this can change by 6 months of age and sometimes later.  

A newborn is born with the ability to focus only at close range, about 8 to 12 inches. A baby can follow or track an object in the first few weeks. Focus improves over the first two to three years of life to a normal 20/20 vision. A newborn can detect light and dark but cannot see all colors. This is why many baby books and infant stimulation toys have sharp contrasting colors like black and white or red and yellow. 

Key Points about Newborn Vision in the First Month

  • Focus best at 8-12 inches
  • Prefer faces
  • Prefer high contrast patterns
  • Eyes occasionally wander or cross

During pregnancy many mothers find that the baby may kick or jump in response to loud noises and quiet with soft, soothing music. Hearing is fully developed in newborns. Often the newborn will recognize his or her mother’s voice (sometimes father’s as well). Newborns prefer a higher-pitched female voice and briefly stop moving when sound at a conversational level is begun. They also may be sensitive to loud noises and may startle, cry or turn away from the source of the noise.

It is estimated that serious hearing loss occurs in about one to three of every 1,000 healthy newborns. If hearing loss is not detected early in life, there is lack of stimulation to the brain’s hearing centers. Hearing loss can delay development of speech and language skills.   Social and emotional development and success in school may also be affected. Ohio law requires that all newborns be screened for hearing loss before leaving the hospital, and parents should be informed of the results.

Key Points about Hearing in the First Month

  • Hearing is mature at birth
  • Babies recognize mother’s voice
  • Screening for hearing loss is important

Taste buds begin forming early in fetal development. It is known that babies prefer sweet tastes over sour or bitter tastes. For example, they prefer sugar water over plain water. Babies also show a strong preference for breast milk and breastfeeding.  In fact, babies can distinguish breast milk from any other liquid. 

Key Point about Taste in the First Month

  • Prefer sweet tastes, particularly breast milk

The brain's olfactory (smell) center forms very early in fetal development. Studies have found that newborns have a keen sense of smell. Babies like sweet smells and dislike acidic or bitter smells.  This parallels preferences in taste. Within the first few days they will show fondness for the smell of their own mother, especially to her breast milk. This sense of smell helps direct the newborn to feeding time. 

Key Point about Smell in the First Month

  • Recognize the scent of mother

Newborns are sensitive to touch. Babies prefer soft textures to scratchy ones and gentle handling over abrupt movements.  Throughout the last months of pregnancy, a baby is snugly cocooned in the uterus, with arms and legs tucked. At birth, babies are suddenly thrust into a bright, cold world, where their arms and legs can suddenly move freely. This new freedom can make babies frantic and they may cry and flail. Placing a gentle hand on the baby's stomach, or cuddling close can help a baby feel more secure. Gentle stroking, slow rocking, holding closely in the warmth of a mother’s arms will often relax and calm a baby. Swaddling (wrapping snugly in a blanket) is another way for babies to feel tucked and secure.  

Studies show that holding a baby will help him or her to thrive. Holding a baby for feedings is important for growth and development.  Breastfeeding, in particular, ensures that a baby spends several hours in mother's arms.  

Key Points about Touch in the First Month

  • Prefer soft, gentle touch
  • Like to be held

Last Updated 09/2012