How you can help your baby develop hearing, touch, smell, taste, and sound
OK — I admit it. When each one of my three babies was born, I jokingly called them “little blobs.” After all, they didn’t do much. (Unless you count eating, pooping and sleeping 20 hours a day.) What I didn’t realize then was that my little blobs were busy absorbing sights, sounds and more through their five senses — and learning at a furious rate. “Every little bit of a newborn baby is like a sponge,” says Natalie Robinson Garfield, author of “The Sense Connection” and a specialist in infant and toddler development. “The baby connects to you through each one of the senses as they try to figure out how the world works. And you, the parents, are their guides.”
Some senses (such as smell and taste) are at their most powerful at birth, and hearing fully matures at 1 month, while sight develops gradually over the first year. We asked the experts to explain how each one works — and how parents can lend a helping hand as baby adjusts to life outside the womb.
Believe it or not, the sense of smell is one of the earliest to emerge in the fetus, says Alan Greene, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of Raising Baby Green. “By the end of the first trimester baby can smell foods that Mom is eating,” he says. “It’s the predominant sense, very early on, because smells cross the amniotic fluid.” And by the end of the first week of life, an infant’s nose is so finely tuned that he can tell the difference between the scent of his mother’s breast milk and that of another mom, Greene adds. “Newborns orient themselves by smell more than any other sense,” he says. “A baby placed on Mom’s belly right after birth will work his way up to the breast for the first nursing, navigating by sense of smell.”
How to help: You can use your baby’s super-tuned sense of smell to help soothe him, says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., an infant and toddler psychologist at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City. “Many parents swear by a nightgown or other piece of clothing that smells like Mom,” she says. “Pleasant odors like lavender can also be very soothing.”
Did you know? Unborn babies are clearly aware of bad smells early on, says Greene — a baby in the womb will actually cringe when she smells cigarette smoke.
Hug Me, Kiss Me, Love Me
It seems counterintuitive, but the sense of touch is also important to babies before they’re born. “It’s the primary way they explore their world in utero,” says Greene. “Babies push and pull, touch their own faces and explore the lining of the womb.” During the first few months of life, babies rely on grown-ups for tactile stimulation and comfort, he adds. “Early on, it’s very passive on their part, because they can’t move too much.” By four months, that changes; your baby can reach out and begin actively touching whatever’s nearby — blankets, toys, your face.
How to help: Babies’ skin is ultra-sensitive, says Garfield, so use a gentle touch when handling a newborn or massaging an older baby. “Imagine that your baby’s skin starts five inches from where it really does,” she says. “They can actually feel the vibrations from your body before you touch them.” Skin-to-skin contact feels especially comforting to your baby, particularly if you lay her on your chest; such “kangaroo care” can actually help regulate their breathing and body temperature. Wearing your baby in a soft carrier, where she is in an upright position and her face is not covered by any fabric, is a great way to support her and keep her close all day — the swaying, rocking and other rhythmic motions help her feel secure. When you put her down, a tight swaddle recreates the snug feeling of the womb and may help babies settle into sleep.
Did you know? At about eight months, a baby can touch and identify a familiar object without seeing it, says Greene. “They explore with their hands and create a mental image of the object — a block or pacifier, for instance. Their tactile sense actually creates an understanding of what the object is.”
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.
Go Ahead, Have a Taste
Taste buds are fully formed at birth, and newborns naturally prefer sweet over salty flavors, says Saysana — which is a good thing, as both breast milk and formula are sweet. Once babies are ready for solid food (usually at around 6 months), they still tend to prefer sweeter tastes such as fruit and sweet potatoes to stronger-tasting veggies. Keep in mind that because babies’ taste buds are so sensitive, bitter flavors such as spinach may be overwhelming to them.
How to help: A tendency toward picky eating may develop even before baby has her first swallow of colostrum, says Nancy Tringali Piho, author of My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything. “A lot of research suggests moms should try to eat a broad and varied healthful diet during pregnancy,” she says. “And since babies do get flavors through breast milk, moms should continue to eat a wide variety of foods while breastfeeding.” The fact that babies in other cultures readily eat what we might consider exotic fare — even spicy Indian or Mexican dishes — is evidence that babies do adapt to mom’s diet, she adds. To get your baby to eat a new food, you may need to introduce it again and again. “It may take up to 15 exposures for him to like a new food,” says Piho. “You need to get into the mindset that you’re going to eat healthfully. It really does play out over time.”
Fun fact: Babies are born with about 10,000 taste buds. Women gradually begin losing them when they reach somewhere between 40 and 50 years old (between 50 and 60 for men). Taste buds aren’t replaced as we age, which is one reason older adults generally like foods that taste stronger.