By Penny Glass, PhD

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 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 pre-term 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 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 - One Month

A newborn...

  • has an inborn preference for what is familiar;

  • pays attention briefly to the human face;

  • responds to movement;

  • has acuity of about 20/400, but can detect a black line that is only 1/16 of an inch wide on a white board;

  • possesses color vision, with the exception of blue.

Two Months

A two-month-old baby...

  • 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 - Six Months

At this age, a baby...

  • 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 (except as related to people).

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

Six - 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. Between six and 12 months, a 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;

  • looks at an object and then at the parent, to indicate wanting access to the object and/or a comment from the parent;

  • shows a toy to a parent in a manner of sharing wonder.

Penny Glass, PhD, is Associate Professor of Pediatrics, George Washington University Medical School, and Director of the Child Development Program, Children's National Medical Center, Washington, DC.



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