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Visual Perception and Babies: What Do Babies See?

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Harris writes articles on history and has a graduate-level education in social science.

Babies, even infants, can visually perceive more than was previously thought.

Babies, even infants, can visually perceive more than was previously thought.

Developing Vision

Our visual capacity has coloured our lives in a thousand ways—from social interaction to the formation of knowledge, visual awareness has always been natural and spontaneous. But there lies within layers after layers of complex structures. We know that a newborn’s vision falls far short of the adult standard. There are several possible reasons why this might be so. This paper will discuss how babies’ visual perceptions develop and what babies see with the passage of time.

Visual Perception of Babies

Since the pioneering work of Robert Fantz in the '60s, interest in infant visual perception has grown rapidly so that there are now many workers generating large volumes of data on various aspects of visual perception in quite young babies. In general, the work concentrates on the first six months of life since most workers are attempting to find out just how much infants can perceive and how early they can do it. Various levels of analysis are adapted from questions about the optics of the newborn’s eye to ones about the detection of size and shape constancy and whether infants can use visual information to control their posture. As a consequence, quite different methods of investigation are used, ranging from ophthalmic measures, through measure of brain activity, to detection of motor response to complex visual stimuli. Some methods, however, are quite versatile and are used to tackle questions at several levels of analysis. The best examples here are the spontaneous visual preference technique and the habituation-dishabituation method. (Michae Swanston, 2001)

People have always suspected that babies’ vision is not as good as adults’; indeed it was not so long ago that there was a widespread belief that babies were born blind and only gradually become able to see. Now we know that this is far from the truth. We do know that the newborn’s vision falls far short of the adult standard. There are several possible reasons why this might be so.

First, the optics of the eye might be deficient. The infant’s eye is about half the size of an adult’s and optical alignment undergoes change during development. So one possibility is that visual deficits results at least in part from optical imperfections.

Second, the infant’s problem might be due to deficits in visual accommodation. When adults successively fixate objects at different distances, the curvature of the lens changes to keep the visual image focused on the retina. The popular view in the recent past was that newborns were incapable of visual accommodation and that they were much sighted, only seeing clearly things presented at a distance of about nine inches.

Third is little benefit from having a well-focused image if the retina is not sufficiently developed to encode it in neural form. Fourth, acuity deficits could be located at higher neural levels. A sharp image could be cast on the retina, and it could be neutrally encoded by the receptors with little loss resolution, but the visual cortex might be insufficiently developed to process this information. (Al Seckel, 2006)

It is also used to be believed that newborn babies see the world as a meaningless blur of lines and colors swimming around in their field of vision. Physiologist William James said in the 1800s that the newborn sees a "blooming, buzzing, confusion.' Now we know that newborns are able to see much of the world around them. Although their visual system is immature, newborns see quite well at close distances. You will probably notice your baby scanning your face with great interest (Michae Swanston, 2001), especially when you come within 12 inches of your new bundle of joy. A normal newborn can even track a slowly moving object and will sometimes turn his head to follow it.

However, a newborn cannot adjust his focus the way an adult can. His eye has a fixed focus which allows him fairly clear vision at a distance of eight to twelve inches. He quickly learns to focus or accommodate. So that by six weeks of age he can focus at a distance of one to two feet. By age four months, he can see objects that are close or far, almost as well as an adult can. By age six months, he will see as clearly as he ever will. Most babies prefer to look at complex patterns such as your face or the face on a toy. They prefer patterns with curved lines rather than straight ones. At age one to two months, your baby will probably begin to smile while studying your face. At age three to four months, he will be able to tell your face from a strangers and his face will light up when he sees you.

Newborn babies do not have good depth perception. They do not have the full ability to see things in three dimensions. There are special cells in the brain called binocular cells that receive input from the left and right eyes which are responsible for the development of good depth perception. The baby must also be able to coordinate his two eyes so that they point in the same direction. He can do this to some extent right from birth but not perfectly well until age three to five months. Color vision is not well developed at birth. It is surprising how unimportant color seems to be to babies before the age of six months. It is not completely certain whether newborn babies have color vision at all. By age two months, babies do notice colors of red. Orange, green and yellow, and they can also see blues shortly thereafter. (Steven H. Schwartz, 2004)

What Do Babies See?

The visual system is our most complex sensory system, but functionally is the least mature system at birth. Together, the sensory systems form an integrated hierarchy and are influenced by the nature of the environment. At birth, infants are still auditory dominant, rather than visually dominant; that is, they are first "listeners" rather than "lookers." The predominance of high levels of visual stimulation in early infancy, such as through black/white/red patterns or objects, may artificially shift an infant from the expected auditory dominance to visual dominance. Normal visual maturation is the shift from responding to simple brightness or high contrast edges of forms toward the organization of detail into a pattern and understanding the meaning of an object or picture. If visually captured by the overwhelming brightness or colors of toys, the infant is less likely to recognize what an object is or how it fits into a scheme of things. Infants born preterm have more difficulty integrating and interpreting visual information even when their acuity is normal. They may be biologically more vulnerable, more easily overwhelmed by excess visual stimulation, and more readily distracted by irrelevant information. What to do? Normally, in the early months, there should be nothing more enchanting than the human face—and even more so in the context of social interaction; visually intense toys and baby videos have no role in normal development. Simple baby toys encourage eye-hand coordination through visual and manual exploration of a single object, promote exploration of events such as cause and effect, and a means to an end, and enhance exploration of spatial relationships between one object and another. A baby takes his/her experience with objects and visually seeks a person with whom to share the wonder and who will comment in return.

What a Baby Sees in the First Year

Newborn to One Month

  • Has an inborn preference for what is familiar;
  • Pays attention briefly to the human face;
  • Responds to movement;
  • Possesses color vision, with the exception of blue.

Two Months

  • Visually "locks" onto a human face, particularly when the face is accompanied by a voice;
  • Watches people at a distance;
  • Is able to alternate his/her gaze between two people, objects, or patterns and show simple visual preference.

Four to Six Months

  • Is fascinated with faces of other babies and his/her own, as seen in a mirror;
  • Recognizes a person on sight and smiles selectively;
  • Shifts from his/her earlier preference for what is familiar to a preference for novelty.

At this time, there is evidence of more cognitive processing and visual recognition memory (i.e., recognizing relevant pattern information amidst change without being overly distracted by detail). Also, a four- to sixth-month-old baby is visually guided in reaching/grasping; visually inspects and examines a toy held in different orientations/positions, and looks for it when it falls from view. (Steven H. Schwartz, 2004)

Six to 12 Months

At this age, objects continue to exist for a baby even when they are no longer in view; and he/she begins to recognize a novel picture as a representation of a familiar object.

In addition, social referencing is experienced at this age. At six to 12 months, the baby:

  • Can look in the direction that your eyes are gazing;
  • May modify his/her approach to, or withdrawal from, a novel situation by the positive (or negative) expression on a parent's face;
  • Begins to direct his/her gaze toward familiar people or objects in response to common words when a parent labels what the baby is looking at;
  • Shows a toy to a parent in a manner of sharing wonder.

In conclusion, most babies develop the ability to focus visually and to make fine discriminations in visual images as they grow; some babies will take longer to develop these skills and may need some additional help or additional practice. Good visual perception is an important skill, especially for newborn babies. Babies need good visual perception to discriminate well, develop visual memory of things observed, develop good eye-hand coordination and integrate visual information while using other senses in order to perform tasks like recognizing the source of a sound, etc.

© 2008 HARRIS


Atanacio on February 03, 2013:

My baby is 8 weeks old. She locked her eyes on a 3 by 5 picture of her mother and her grandmother and would not take her eyes off of it even when I turned her head/ Whem I took her away and broaght her back she locked on to the picture again and started taling to her in the seates cooing. That seems unusual. She met her sister for the first time today and took great interest in the pretty woman too. Is it that she recognized her mom or just a pint size girl like heer sister? any ideas or research on photo recognition?

kirsty on March 22, 2012:

this has helped with my study in child psychology, thanx!!!!

tasha on December 05, 2011:

when babies look around is they seeing things?

Shailja on September 12, 2011:

Very informative and helpful in understanding my baby...

James on July 23, 2010:

I am going to be a dad soon and i found this article to be very informative.

jenny on April 30, 2010:

nice info loved it

Anna Ang on December 28, 2009:

Great Information. You should post this comment also on Baby center.

jackelyn on June 21, 2009:

hi.... i am more interesting on what i read about the babies

Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on November 01, 2008:

Facinating, I'll keep this in mind with my secons grandchild on the way. I knew some of the info but, very little in comprison

Haris on October 31, 2008:

Hey Great hub! Very usefull info

jim10 from ma on October 17, 2008:

Great hub. My newest son is just four months now.