Babies experience the world in a completely different way than adults do, and this begins with how they see. Let’s explore children’s vision, how it develops, and what you can do as a parent to help build strong and healthy eyes.
Vision at birth: A whole new world
Congratulations! Your new bundle of joy just arrived. Birth probably rocked his world as much as it did yours, and it might take a few moments for his eyes to open. Once they do, the doctors and nurses will check for congenital eye problems, along with the other routine checks they do at birth. They’ll also typically apply an ointment to prevent infection.
A newborn’s vision is very different from an adult’s or even a toddler’s. Your newborn can’t see in colour yet — only in shades of grey. She also has blurry vision, with visual acuity around 20/400, and can’t focus on anything beyond eight to twelve inches away. Newborns are also not very sensitive to light: it takes almost 50 times as much light for them to notice it’s there.
At birth, your newborn’s eye is only about three-quarters the size of an adult eye. In these first few weeks, the structures and receptors of her eye, along with the nerves in her eye and brain, will also start to develop. This will continue for the next two years. Let’s look at what happens during this visual development.
What you can do
Help your baby get a great start by:
- Maintaining proper prenatal care and nutrition while you’re expecting
- Giving your baby bright, high-contrast things
- Plugging in a nightlight for your baby to look around while awake in his crib
- Not radically changing your appearance
Children’s vision development: The first year
After a few weeks, your baby will be able to see most colours, but colour vision will continue to develop for the next few months. These first few months are also when visual acuity begins to sharpen, and light sensitivity slowly increases.
This is also when your baby’s eyes are learning to work together. While this coordination is developing, it’ll be normal for his eyes to wander or drift out of alignment. This isn’t a concern unless you notice constant misalignment. The coordination of your baby’s eyes means depth perception is also developing, and hand-eye-body coordination is improving.
By six months, colour vision and visual acuity should be fully developed in children’s vision. This means it’s time for baby’s first eye exam. While your baby won’t be able to read letters or an E chart like you can, his or her optometrist can perform nonverbal tests to check for near or farsightedness, astigmatism and other visual problems.
Through two years of age, your bundle of joy will be busy fine-tuning visual abilities such as eye tracking, and increasing depth perception and hand-eye coordination. Children’s vision continues to develop into their school years, as they strengthen their visual perception system to recognise the shapes, colours, letters, and numbers they need for literacy.
What you can do:
Help your infant develop visual skills by:
- Providing lots of brightly coloured, diverse and changing visual stimuli
- Moving her arms and legs simultaneously to encourage bilateral and binocular development
- Talk to him as you walk around the room
- Use a nightlight in her room
- Use reach-and-touch and other toys that let him explore different shapes and colours
- Play “patty-cake” and “peek-a-boo” with your infant
- Give her stacking or take-apart toys that she can hold and manipulate
Signs of vision problems in children
What should you keep an eye out for in your children’s vision? Some common signs and symptoms of vision problems in children include:
- Constant misalignment of one or both eyes
- Watery, teary eyes (may be caused by blocked tear ducts)
- Red or crusty eyelids (usually a sign of eye infection)
- Extreme light sensitivity, especially in infants (may signal high eye pressure)
- White pupils (can signal cancer, retina problems, cataracts and other problems)
- Trouble tracking objects and people
- Avoidance of picture books and reading in older children
- Increasing closeness to blackboards and the television
Your optometrist is your ally in monitoring and maintaining the health of your eyes and vision, and this is particularly important in childhood during the rapid changes and growth as vision develops. Your child should start getting regular comprehensive eye exams at six months, but always bring your questions to your optometrist. He or she can help you figure out what’s going on and equip you to make the best decisions for your child’s vision.