The World According to Babies
Here, fascinating answers to the question: How much does my baby understand?
Hearing and Vision
Every parent thinks her baby is a genius. And maybe it’s not such a far-out claim when you consider the startling amount a newborn does know. His senses began to develop while he was still in the womb, and they progress at an amazing pace during the first year. Far from being a helpless little bundle, your baby is processing tons of information — and using it to become attached to you.
Your baby can detect sounds by the third trimester, so this sense is already advanced at birth. She’ll recognize familiar voices — especially yours, since she listened to it the most in the womb. She may even recognize songs and stories she heard during the last six weeks of your pregnancy. “By the time she’s 1 month old, a baby can tell the difference between certain sounds, like ‘pa’ and ‘ba,'” says Michael Yogman, MD, a pediatrician at Mount Auburn Hospital, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At about 6 months, she can recognize and begin responding to her name. This is also when your baby starts babbling and discovers another sound she loves — her own voice!
Sounds Babies Love
- White noise — the vacuum cleaner, radio static, and the hum of a fan — remind them of the soothing whooshing noises in the womb.
- That high-pitched, singsong voice we all use when we talk to babies. Lower-frequency sounds are less engaging.
- Music, especially lullabies and nursery rhymes.
You may think your baby needs silence in order to sleep, but she’s actually used to the (loud) sounds of your body from her time in the womb. So make some noise while she naps — she may sleep better!
Sight is the least developed sense at birth. “A newborn can only see about 8 to 12 inches away,” says Roni Leiderman, PhD, associate dean of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale. Beyond that, the world seems like a pretty blurry place to your baby — his eyes don’t work together yet so he can’t focus very well. But his limited vision actually helps him feel attached to you. “A newborn can see just far enough to make out your face when you’re feeding him,” says Dr. Leiderman.
A Newborn’s-Eye View
Newborn. Your baby loves to look at your face, especially areas of contrast like your hairline and eyes. Since his color vision isn’t fully developed yet, he’s mesmerized by black-and-white designs, bold patterns, and large, brightly colored objects.
2 months. Now that their eyes are starting to work together, most babies can track a moving object. Your newborn’s brain is beginning to perceive and follow motion, so he’ll love watching a mobile or playing in front of a child-safe mirror.
4 months. He can now see in color, so his toys and stuffed animals become more appealing. He also has better depth perception and can spot objects across a room.
6 months. Your baby is able to see finer details, so he may be fascinated by things that never interested him before: his teddy bear’s face, the design on his rattle, or the tree outside his bedroom window.
Until your baby is about 2 months old, his peripheral vision is stronger than his central vision, so don’t hang a crib mobile directly over his head.
Taste and Touch
Your baby’s taste buds develop in the womb because she’s exposed to your diet through your amniotic fluid. You’ll continue to share flavors with her after birth, since the taste of food also passes through your breast milk, making it taste a little different each time. But no matter what you eat during pregnancy or those first months of motherhood, your baby is born with a sweet tooth — anything sugary is yummy and soothing. That’s why she’ll eagerly gulp breast milk or formula, since both are sweet. “It’s nature’s way of providing the perfect food for babies,” says Dr. Leiderman.
When your baby is ready for solid foods (usually at 4 to 6 months old), she’ll still crave sweets. It’s why she gobbles those first bites of applesauce or pureed banana but may turn her nose up at green beans or peas. Provide variety in your child’s diet, and keep in mind that introducing new foods may be tougher for a bottle-fed baby because she’s used to the same taste at every feeding. If you’ve exposed your little one to many different flavors — even potent ones like garlic — through your breast milk, she may be more willing to accept them when she starts solids. People lose taste buds as they age, so your baby likely has more than you do!
Touch is the first sense to develop in the womb and is probably the most advanced at birth, says Dr. Yogman. Babies thrive on lots of physical contact, which makes them feel cozy and loved. “More than any other sense, touch ensures bonding between a parent and baby,” says Laura Jana, MD, coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality.
There are lots of super-easy and fun ways to connect with your baby.
- Cuddle his bare chest against yours for some kangaroo care.
- Rub his back at feeding time.
- Hold him and dance cheek to cheek.
- Swaddle him in a comfy blanket.
- Give him a gentle massage.
Hooked on a Feeling
When your baby is about 6 months old, he’ll become eager to explore the world with his own two hands. He’ll have fun discovering different textures, like rough tags on blankets, soft plush toys, Daddy’s facial stubble, your hair, and hard and soft blocks.
Anything your baby can get his hands on will likely end up in his mouth, since his mouth is full of touch receptors. It’s where he “feels” things best!
Your baby developed the ability to smell when you were six months pregnant. In fact, since this sense actually increases from birth to age 8, your child’s powers of odor detection will be better than yours for a few years, says Lise Eliot, PhD, author of What’s Going On in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. He’ll use this sense to explore his world — and get to know you, since he can detect you by the unique scent of your breast milk before he’s a week old!
Here are some tips to help you comfort and connect with your baby.
- Use the same shampoo, soap, and deodorant. Your baby likes familiar smells.
- Make sure your husband uses the same products consistently as well. It will help your child bond with Dad.
- Give your baby one of your unwashed shirts to comfort him when he’s upset.
- Send your husband sometimes to soothe your baby when your little one can’t sleep but doesn’t need a feeding. The smell of breast milk makes infants more alert.
Even newborns can benefit from a little aromatherapy. A 2005 study from Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that babies were comforted after medical procedures by the scent of vanilla.