During the first weeks of life your newborn may seem to do little more than eat, sleep, cry, and generate dirty diapers. But in reality, all senses are functioning as your infant takes in the sights, sounds, and smells of this new world.
It's hard for us to know exactly what a newborn is feeling — but if you pay close attention to your baby's responses to light, noise, and touch, you can see complex senses coming alive.
Your newborn can see best at a distance of only 8 to 12 inches, and focus when gazing up from the arms of mom or dad. Your newborn can see things farther away, but it is harder to focus on distant objects. Newborns are very sensitive to bright light and are more likely to open their eyes in low light.
After human faces, bright colors, contrasting patterns, and movement are the things a newborn likes to look at best. Black-and-white pictures or toys will attract and keep your baby's interest far longer than objects or pictures with lots of similar colors. Even a crude line drawing of two eyes, a nose, and a mouth may keep your infant's attention if held close within range.
Your baby, when quiet and alert, should be able to follow the slow movement of your face or an interesting object.
Although your baby's sight is functioning, it still needs some fine tuning, especially when it comes to focusing far off. Your baby's eyes may even seem to cross or diverge (go "wall-eyed") briefly. This is normal, and your newborn's eye muscles will strengthen and mature during the next few months.
Give your infant lots of interesting sights to look at. Introduce new objects to keep your baby's interest, but don't overdo it. And don't forget to move your infant around a bit during the day to provide a needed change of scenery.
Most newborns have a hearing screening before being discharged from the hospital (most states require this). If your baby didn't have it, or was born at home or a birthing center, it's important to have a hearing screening within the first month of life. Most kids born with a hearing loss can be diagnosed through a hearing screening.
Genetics, infections, trauma, and damaging noise levels may result in a hearing problem so it's important to have kids' hearing evaluated regularly as they get older. Even if your child passed the newborn hearing screen, talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your baby's hearing.
Your newborn has been hearing sounds since way back in the womb. Mother's heartbeat, the gurgles of her digestive system, and even the external sounds of her voice and the voices of other family members were part of a baby's world before birth.
Once your baby is born, the sounds of the outside world come in loud and clear. Your baby may startle at the unexpected bark of a dog nearby or seem soothed by the gentle whirring of the clothes dryer or the hum of the vacuum cleaner.
Try to pay attention to how your newborn responds to your voice. Human voices, especially Mom's and Dad's, are a baby's favorite "music." Your infant already knows that this is where food, warmth, and touch come from. If your infant is crying in the bassinet, see how quickly your approaching voice quiets him or her down. See how closely your baby listens when you are talking in loving tones.
Your infant may not yet coordinate looking and listening, but even while staring into the distance, your little one is probably paying close attention to your voice when you speak.
Taste and Smell
Taste and smell are the two most closely related of the senses. Research shows that new babies prefer sweet tastes from birth and will choose to suck on bottles of sweetened water but will turn away or cry if given something bitter or sour to taste. Likewise, newborns will turn toward smells they prefer and turn away from unpleasant odors.
Though sweetness is preferred, taste preferences will continue to develop during the first year of life. For now, breast milk or formula will satisfy your newborn completely!
As it is to most humans, touch is extremely important to a newborn. Through touch, babies learn a lot about surroundings. At first, your baby is looking only for comfort. Having come from a warm and enveloping fluid before birth, babies are faced with feeling cold for the first time, brushing up against the hardness of the crib, or feeling the stiff edge of a seam inside clothes.
Babies look to parents to provide the soft touches: silky blankets, comforting hugs, and loving caresses. With almost every touch a newborn is learning about life, so provide lots of tender kisses and your infant will find the world is a soothing place to be.
Should I Be Concerned?
If you just want a little reassurance that your baby's senses are working well, you can do some unscientific testing for yourself. When quiet and alert without other distractions, will your baby focus and follow your face or favorite toy?
If your baby's eyes seem to cross more than just briefly, be sure to tell your doctor. In some instances, medical correction may be required. Also tell the doctor if your baby's eyes appear cloudy or filmy, or if they appear to wander in circles as they attempt to focus.
Most newborns will startle if surprised by a loud noise nearby. Other ways to rest assured your baby is hearing well: Does your baby calm down when he or she hears your voice. Does your baby turn to the sound of a rattle? Does your baby respond to soft lullabies or other music? Do sounds made out of sight capture your baby's attention?
If you have any concerns about your newborn's ability to see or hear, talk to your doctor. Even newborns can be tested using sophisticated equipment, if necessary. The sooner a potential problem is caught, the better it can be treated.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2011