A baby smiling.

The eye is one of the most complicated organs in the human body and takes years to fully develop. It must collect and focus light then convert it to an electrical signal that the brain can understand using dozens of different kinds of neurons. This process is a learned behavior that begins even before birth.

Stages of eye development

Eyes begin to form in the womb only six weeks after conception and can start to see light even through fused eyelids at the beginning of the second trimester. It turns out, according to a recent study, that exposure to light in the womb is essential for healthy eyes and proper vision. At birth, babies are thrust into a world of visual stimulation yet have not yet developed the ability to distinguish between two targets. They are most interested in highly contrasted targets and their primary focus is on objects a little less than a foot away, the distance of his mother’s face while nursing. After this point, there are many milestones of visual development in the first year of life:

  • For the first few months, a baby’s eyes are learning to work together and begin to track moving objects. Eye-hand coordination also begins to develop.
  • At around five months, depth perception begins and the baby is able to start seeing the world in three dimensions. Color vision is also well established at this point.
  • From around nine months on, babies learn to use their eyes and hands together as they learn to crawl then walk and also gain greater dexterity. They can now judge distances fairly well and throw with some precision.

Signs of possible vision problems in infants

While eye and vision problems in infants are uncommon, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA) there are some signs parents can look for that may indicate eye and vision problems:

  • Excessive tearing – indication of blocked tear ducts
  • Red or encrusted eye lids – possible eye infection
  • Constant eye turning – sign of strabismus
  • Extreme light sensitivity – indication of possible elevated pressure in the eye
  • White pupil – may indicate presence of an eye cancer

How to encourage visual development

Since sight is a learned process just like walking and talking, parents and caregivers play an important role in a child’s visual development. In addition to watching for the above signs of eye or vision problems, parents should bring their baby in for their first comprehensive vision assessment at about 6 months of age as some issues are easier to correct if identified and treated early. Engaging in age appropriate activities such as putting toys within the 8 to 12 inch focal range of young babies or playing patty cake and rolling balls back and forth for older babies will assist in a child’s learning process.

Watching an infant’s visual development is a fascinating process. If you would like to learn more about infant eye development and specific activities to help in visual development, the AOA’s InfantSEE® public health program provides free information as well as free comprehensive infant eye assessments through participating optometrists.

Nothing in this blog post is to be construed as medical advice, nor is it intended to replace the recommendations of a medical professional. For specific questions, please see your eye care practitioner.
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