Vision development in Infants
Infants develop their vision over the first year of life. At first, babies see only in shades of grey and aren't able to process much detail. As your baby grows, the ability to focus, use their eyes in tandem and follow movement all become second nature. Understanding the expected progression of your baby's vision will help you remain vigilant and know what is normal in your child's development. Of course, if you note anything concerning, contact your paediatrician or paediatric optometrist right away.
Development in the Womb
As your child's eyes and brain develop, maternal health and habits have an affect on the baby's sight long before they are born. Mums can take steps to give their babies the best possible outcome, including:
- Complete cessation of alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has been linked to low birth weight, which has been linked to vision problems.
- Quitting smoking. This is another bad habit that can result in low birth weight. Additionally, smoking exposes the baby to over 3000 known carcinogens and toxins.
- Checking with your OB/GYN before taking over-the-counter medications. For example, aspirin has been implicated in birth complications and low birth weight, both of which can have a deleterious outcome for mum and child.
If an expectant mum is experiencing problems with addiction, it's imperative she seek treatment and be guided in quitting. Quitting drugs, alcohol or cigarettes cold turkey can be dangerous for both mum and the baby, making professional guidance necessary.
Developments Immediately After Birth
Soon after your baby enters the world, an antibiotic ointment will be applied to their eyes. This is harmless and avoids infection, since your child was exposed to vaginal bacteria during birth. Your obstetrician will also check for any vision issues, such as congenital cataracts or other abnormalities.
At first, your baby will only see in shades of black and white. He or she will likely be drawn to look at objects with high contrast, such as brightly coloured mobiles and toys. Babies are also near-sighted in their first months of life, meaning they see best at a distance of about 8 to 10 inches away.
It's perfectly normal for an infant to have problems tracking objects. You may notice your child crosses their eyes or doesn't focus very long on any one object. This is completely normal. However, if you notice one eye is repeatedly turning out or in, you will want to schedule an evaluation to ensure your child doesn't have strabismus. Strabismus is also called a lazy or wandering eye. It can be corrected, but it's best discovered early.
Vision in the First Month of Life
Babies this young don't react to light as well as adults. There's no need to make the nursery dark to allow your baby to sleep, as he or she only detects light at 1/50th the rate you do. Within a week of birth, the ability to see colours is developing, especially orange, red, green and yellow. Blue, due to its lower light wavelength, takes longer to be recognized. For this reason, many people now decorate baby’s nursery with bright colours and artwork to encourage visual stimulation.
Moving Up to Three Months
In the second and third month of life, your baby's visual acuity is on the rise. The extreme near-sightedness resolves, allowing your child to focus in on details farther away. You'll also notice hand-eye coordination developing. Your baby will begin to reach for people and objects around this age, and they will also become more sensitive to light. You may want to start dimming the lights for nap time to help your baby drift off to sleep.
Four to Six Months Milestones
Your child's abilities will begin to develop even more rapidly as he or she nears the six-month mark. You can expect:
- Swift development of depth perception. Your baby will begin to discern objects in the near distance from objects in the far distance. This will improve hand-eye coordination and your baby will begin grabbing nearby objects with greater finesse. He or she will be able to guide a bottle or toy to their mouth with accuracy.
- Colour vision is now comparable to that of an adult. All the colours of the rainbow are viewable, provided your child is not colour blind.
- Your baby's eyes will move together as a team and their gaze will shift as easily as an adult's.
Baby's First Eye Exam
If you haven't had your child evaluated yet, the six-month milestone is the recommended age for a first eye exam. This is important, as childhood ocular cancer is extremely rare but also extremely aggressive. Your paediatrician or paediatric optometrist will also check for signs of astigmatism, farsightedness and nearsightedness. These garden-variety vision errors can be corrected easily with corrective lenses. Leaving them untreated, however, can lead to learning delays and poor coordination.
Months Seven to Twelve
As your child becomes more mobile and curious about the world around them, their vision becomes one of their primary tools for understanding and interacting with that world. As he or she begins to crawl and scoot around the floor, you'll want to keep careful watch to avoid eye injuries. Pad the corners of your coffee table and keep pens and pencils out of baby's reach. Consider a baby gate to confine your child to baby-safe areas of the house.
This is also the time in your baby's life where their eyes may change colour. This can be extremely strange to first-time parents, but it's not cause for alarm. Many children are born with deep blue eyes that may change to brown, hazel, green or grey. It's also possible your child's eyes will not be the same colour. For example, one may remain blue while the other turns dark brown. This is usually a normal and benign condition called heterochromia. Celebrities such as Mila Kunis, Henry Cavill and Jane Seymour have this condition and it has no bearing on visual acuity.
What to Watch for in the Future
As your baby becomes a toddler, there are some conditions you will want to watch for well into their school-aged years.
- A wandering or 'turned' eye. While this is usually a problem noticed in infancy, nystagmus (wandering eye) can take awhile to show up. There are corrections available for these issues, so any wandering or turning of the eye should be evaluated.
- A marked lack of eye contact. This can be a sign of autism or developmental delays. It's also possible you just have a shy child! Either way, evaluation is necessary if you note this behavior.
- Strange or off-colour lens reflections in pictures. Every parent has pictures of their child with red eyes due to red glare from the camera lens. What you want to look for is a differing of the glare. For example, if one eye is red and the other is white in the lens glare, this could potentially be a sign of ocular cancer. If you see this in photographs, schedule an exam immediately.
Your child's vision develops in amazing ways in just twelve short months. If you have any further questions or concerns, don't hesitate to ask your child's paediatrician or paediatric optometrist. As a parent, you can help your child grow up to have healthy, sharp vision for life.
Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 29 Oct 2016, Last modified: 4 Mar 2020