Can My Baby Really See?

The young father has come to all the childbirth classes and is determined to help his baby grow and develop as best he can. "But, he won't look at his rattle," the dad reports, as he quickly moves the toy back and forth in front of the baby's eyes. "On that film you showed us I saw a baby look at his rattle. So what's wrong with Eric?" Dad asks.

The nurse is delighted by the new father's interest and attention to his little one. She reminds Dad that though a baby can see up close almost as well as an adult, infant eyes move more slowly. So she steadies Dad's hand as he holds the rattle 10 inches from the baby's face. Together they move the rattle slowly as Eric attends to the toy. When the baby's eyes hesitate and drop off the rattle, she and Dad stop the movement. Then Eric's eyes seem to catch on again. Now Dad and the nurse inch the ball over a second time as Eric looks on.

The nurse also shows Dad how to vary the sound of the rattle to keep Eric's attention. Since babies have the ability to ignore repeating, overwhelming stimulation (habituation or the "Shutting Down" SOS), varying the cadence of the rattle keeps a baby interested. Eric likes what Dad is doing now.

In another few seconds Dad notices Eric start to get a bit red in the face; he also sees his son's breathing pick up. "That's one of those SOSs!," Dad exclaims. "I think he's done showing off right now." Dad cuddles Eric closely and speaks quietly into his ear. The baby's color returns to normal and his breathing slows down as he melts into his father's arms.

Babies do have remarkable abilities to see and can see their parent's face at birth! Research shows that at only four hours old, a baby can even pick her mother out of a lineup of women's photos! However, it is normal for babies to hesitate as they engage with and follow an object. Human faces are especially attractive to babies. They seem programmed to respond to the contrasting colors, curves, and movement of a parent's face.

Babies who are born early, or who are more fragile, may have normal vision but not yet be able to orient as fully to a toy or to Dad's face as Eric can. The nurse may notice that such a baby only gets still and quiet when a rattle is shaken. But she know that this, too, is normal. Watching for those SOSs, and giving extra support with swaddling, will help some babies orient easier. Surprisingly, some babies who are not yet able to look at a toy may simply lift their chin toward the object as proof that "I get it! I can't do it right now, but soon I will!"

The nurse loves to finish an encounter with a family by helping the parent experience a baby's attention to his parent's voice. The nurse holds the baby as Dad calls Eric's name. Dad is surprised and delighted to see the baby turn toward him and look him in the face. 

This young father is reassured to see how attending to the rate and rhythm of the "rattle game" and responding to his son's SOSs helps Eric pay attention to the wonderful world around him--and Dad feels even more connected to the newest member of his family.

© HUG Your Baby 2017