Even as adults, our senses can sometimes feel overwhelmed. Imagine standing in a busy airport or train station and experiencing all that’s going on around you – the noise, the colours, the movement, the smells. For a baby, finding themselves in the world suddenly after being cocooned safely in the womb for nine months, it’s a similar experience. This may be why our five senses aren’t fully developed at birth – it could be Mother Nature’s way of protecting us from the onslaught.
The sheer volume of sensations may also explain why many babies like being carried or held facing into your chest. It’s a way of shielding themselves from all the things that are happening. Gradually, though, babies adjust to their new environment. Their senses develop fully, helping them learn and experience the world.
Babies are born with less than perfect vision. They can only focus on objects at close range, within 20cm-25cm (8-10 inches). This is all they really need to begin with – it’s roughly the distance between their face and that of whoever is holding them. Newborns can detect light and dark but can’t distinguish between colours.
Babies start to follow or track objects visually after around a month, though eye movement can be uncoordinated for some time. This is also when they can start to see different colours. By around three months, they can start to perceive depth of field, and their focus continues to sharpen over the first two or three years of their lives.
Hearing is full developed at birth. During pregnancy, most women find their baby moves in response to sudden noises or become calm if they hear soothing music. After birth, if your baby’s hearing is normal, she will be startled by loud sounds. She will also be calmed by the sound of her parents’ voices or briefly become still if people start talking. Studies have found most newborns seem to prefer higher-pitched – female – voices to lower ones.
Babies are born with a strong sense of smell. In the womb they breathed and swallowed amniotic fluid, which has a scent similar to their mother’s breast milk. This is why, although he can’t see her properly yet, a newborn knows his mother by scent.
Your baby is drawn to these smells through his basic need for food and comfort. It’s one reason why, if you are introducing mixed feeding after starting with breastfeeding, you may need someone else to give your baby his bottles at first. If he can smell you and your breast milk, he may refuse to drink formula.
Sense of taste is linked closely with sense of smell, and it began in the womb – your baby had taste buds by the ninth week of pregnancy. A newborn’s taste buds are very sensitive. Babies can distinguish between sweet and sour, but vastly prefer sweet – it’s why they love breast milk. They can also tell the difference between milk from their own mother and from someone else.
By six months, your baby can recognise salty tastes, too. Once you introduce solid foods, you’ll be able to see how she reacts to different flavours, preferring some and rejecting others.
Newborn babies have sensitive skin. Touch is comforting to them, which is why being stroked or held will often have a calming effect and make them feel secure. It’s one of the earliest ways you will communicate with your baby.
By two or three months, she will use her tongue, mouth and lips to investigate objects you give her, and can tell the difference between hard and soft textures. By four months, she’ll start to reach out to touch object on her own, and by six months she will be able to grasp them herself.