Your little one is a natural learner. From day one, his five glorious senses are sending a steady stream of messages about his new postwomb environment. Bit by bit, these incoming messages form your newborn’s understanding of the world around him.
At birth, baby is extremely nearsighted. He can see about a foot in front of him, give or take a few inches—just about the distance to your face while he is nursing. Even then, his vision is blurry. High contrast colors like black and white are easiest for him to view early on, before he can compute the full spectrum of colors.
While a newborn’s vision does register movement and light, his brain is unsure of what to do with the information. Contrast is interesting, but there is little recognition assigned to visual stimuli in the beginning. As the weeks and months progress, baby will learn to focus on moving objects, following them with his eyes. He will gradually begin to see details more clearly, and colors will emerge more distinctly—first bold, primary colors, then pastels. He will recognize faces, places and things, visually advancing until about 8 months of age, when his sight is fully developed.
To aid baby’s ocular development, provide him with plenty of face time, high-contrast, colorful toys and books, and diverse views of his world. Although plopping your tot in front of a “learning DVD” now and then does not make you a horrible parent (seriously, we’ve all had those days!), watching a screen won’t help your baby recognize the look and pace of real life. Instead, let him gaze out a window as he reclines in a bouncy seat—what seems commonplace to us is new and interesting to an infant.
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Your little one’s ears are fully functional even before birth. Thus, he spends many weeks in utero enjoying the rush of amniotic white noise peppered with sounds from the outside world. Your voice will quickly become familiar to him, as will songs or stories you’ve shared repeatedly before or after birth. He even recognizes the cadence of your native language compared to a foreign tongue.
After baby arrives, you might find yourself instinctively speaking to him in a high-pitched singsong voice. This “motherese” is common among moms from all cultures and appears to be pleasant and stimulating for infants.
Sounds have a major influence on baby’s development. Because an infant with hearing loss can experience language and learning delays, it’s important to have his ears checked soon after birth and at regular checkups. Early screenings measure sound waves in the inner ear (and brainwaves in reaction to sound, if necessary). Most infants pass this test without issues, but if concerns arise, further testing may be recommended.
While preliminary hearing tests are helpful, the best gauge of baby’s hearing ability is you. In the first months, your wee one will often become quiet in response to white noise, familiar voices and music. When he hears loud or sudden noises, he should startle by throwing his arms wide. By 6 months, he will start to babble and repeat sounds, gaining “vocabulary” each month. If these indicators are absent, make sure to bring it up with your doctor as soon as possible. She might refer you to a hearing specialist who can determine a diagnosis.
Gentle, appropriate touch is crucial to baby’s development. He was cradled on all sides in the womb, so after birth, he still needs contact and warmth. Immediate skin-to-skin contact is recommended after delivery whenever possible, so he begins to have his physical needs met by his mother (and so he can identify her smell, to aid in breastfeeding). “Kangaroo care” —skin-to-skin nurturing of premature newborns—is commonly recommended to help little ones grow and thrive when they’ve arrived ahead of schedule.
As baby develops, he will be interested in experiencing a variety of textures. When he reacts to the way things feel, offer descriptive words like smooth, soft, scratchy or bumpy. As he gets older and begins to develop hand-eye coordination, and as visual depth perception kicks in around 4 months, he will become eager to reach out and grab toys (and hair and jewelry, too). He’ll then be able to gather information using his hands—his mental repertoire of sizes, shapes and textures will grow as he plays.
Baby can also benefit from massage at an early age—firm but gentle touch can be reassuring and promote overall well-being, from aiding healthy circulation to facilitating digestion to assisting better sleep. To begin, strip baby down to his diaper and rub natural, edible oil between your hands until warm. Then, softly stroke his feet, followed by legs in toward the torso. If he’s agreeable to it, rub his core with a circular motion from the center moving outward. (If he starts to fuss, take a break, and try again another day.)
Smell and taste
Your newbie arrives with a pretty decent sense of smell—in fact, he’s been utilizing this sense since the start of the third tri-mester in utero! During those last formative weeks, smells pass through the placenta with ease, and the amniotic fluid actually enhances the odors as they make their way to his olfactory receptors.
After birth, baby’s sniffer will distinguish between good and bad smells early on. He may turn away from unpleasant smells and lean toward familiar, pleasant aromas. Studies have shown that very young infants will strain toward the smell of breast milk, even distinguishing between their own mother’s milk and that of a stranger.
The smell of your skin will also be familiar and comforting to baby. For this reason, you may want to hold off on perfume awhile—your little one is much more at home nuzzled into the warm, natural smell of your neck.
Like his sense of smell, baby’s sense of taste is apparent at birth. He has an abundance of taste buds and reacts to sweet (like yummy breast milk) and bitter tastes. By the time he’s 5 months old, he’ll begin to react to salty flavors as well.
When you’re ready to introduce solids, start with bland or sweet foods. Because baby was born with a penchant for sweet things, feeding him sweet potatoes and applesauce isn’t going to spoil him. Stronger or more bitter flavors such as peaches are great to introduce a little farther down the road, but they may not be warmly received at first. Keep bringing them out from time to time, and he’ll likely come around. Meanwhile, forgo the salt and pepper—these extras are overwhelming and unnecessary until baby is older.