Out of Sight
Your baby's ability to see the world develops gradually over the first six or seven months of life, says Glen Steele, O.D., chairman of InfantSEE, a national program that provides free eye exams to infants 6 to 12 months old. Newborns can focus eight to 15 inches away (pretty much the distance between their eyes and your face while nursing). By the end of the first month, that distance has increased to about three feet. As baby learns to track movement, don't be alarmed if her eyes occasionally cross, says Steele. "By 3 months, she'll be able to fixate on an object or face with both eyes coordinated," he says. If you think your baby's eyes are not tracking together by 3 months of age, talk with your pediatrician.
And while they're not exactly color-blind, babies do have trouble distinguishing one color from another before 4 months -- that's why high-contrast toys and mobiles are better for their eyes (all those cute nursery pastels are less distinguishable). By about 7 months, baby's eyesight is mature, and soon after, her eye-hand coordination and depth perception have improved enough to reach for a toy outside her immediate grasp.
How to help: The number-one way to boost baby's vision: Make eye contact with your newborn to help him focus on your face. And forget the multi-tasking, says Steele; pay attention to your baby when you're feeding him -- don't text, talk on the phone or look at the computer. Later, make sure your baby gets plenty of tummy time and isn't in a "container" (e.g., a car seat or carrier) for hours on end. "Neck and head development is essential for developing good vision because baby needs to raise his head to draw close to a face," says Steele. A special note for bottle-feeding moms and dads: Switch sides, just as a breastfeeding mom would, so that both of baby's eyes get an equal workout.
Did you know? Early on, babies focus almost exclusively on their parents' eyes, says Greene -- but not just one. "If a parent closes one eye, the baby will often look away," he says. "He wants to look at both eyes."
Now hear this! When your baby startles at even a soft noise, it's no wonder -- his hearing is better than yours. In fact, a human being's sense of hearing is up and running even before birth. "They really pay attention to noises outside the womb, and studies have shown that they do recognize mom's voice."
You can tell your baby is hearing well if he turns toward your voice, says Michele Saysana, M.D., fellow of the the American Academy of Pediatrics, and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine. At about 2 months, babies begin to respond to their parents' voices by cooing, and soon they're repeating some vowel sounds like ah-ah-ah and ooh-ooh-ooh. "By about 4 months, they start to babble," says Saysana. "At a year or so, they begin saying words, such as dada and mama -- the easiest for babies to say."
How to Help: Babies prefer high-pitched voices, so don't be bashful about using baby talk (ditto for soft singing). Do make sure infants aren't exposed to loud noises, such as blaring music or power tools, that could damage their hearing, says Saysana. "All babies should have their hearing tested within the first month of life, and many hospitals routinely screen newborns for hearing problems," she says. Parents should also keep an eye on their infant's response to sounds as well as on her speech development. If your baby doesn't respond to sound, or isn't babbling by 7 months, talk to your pediatrician; it could mean a problem with her hearing or speech development.
Did you know? Hearing-related memory is amazingly long in babies, says Greene. During one study, pregnant women played a song of their choice to their unborn babies. As part of the experiment, the moms purposely didn't play that song for a year after birth. Even after not hearing it for a year, the babies showed recognition when the familiar song was played (as opposed to other, unfamiliar songs.