Your baby's eyes
Baby; see; eye; sight; vision; colour; development; squint; photograph; flash; camera; blocked; tear; duct; tearduct; ;
This topic tells you about a baby's eyes and their understanding of what they can see in the first year of their life.
- As soon as a baby is born she can see, but she does not know what she is seeing.
- She can see most clearly things that are about 20 to 35 cm from her eyes, such as your face when you are holding her close.
- Faces seem to be the things that young babies like to look at most, and they will stare at people for quite long times, but they cannot recognise a face at first.
- They can also see things that are further away, and might look at bright light (such as light from a window) and they may notice the movement of someone in their room, but people and things that are this far away will still be blurred for them.
- They do not yet have good control over where they are looking, and sometimes their eyes might appear crossed for a moment while they are looking around. If a baby has eyes which seem to be crossed all of the time (a squint) this needs to be checked by a doctor.
- Young babies are better able to see contrasting bright colours than pale colours.
- Give them interesting things to look at, but only one thing at a time. The best thing is for them to have the faces of the people closest to them to explore and grow to know.
- At this age many babies have dark coloured eyes (actually it is the iris which is coloured). Later, as more pigment (colour) is formed in the iris the eye may change in colour. This change in colour will probably be finished by the time a baby is 6 months old.
Blocked tear duct
Many babies are born with tear ducts that are not fully developed or that are narrower than usual. This means that the tears that are formed to keep the surface of the eye damp and healthy do not drain away through the tear ducts, into the nose.
- This may cause the eye to be wet much of the time (often called a 'sticky eye'), with tears running out onto the cheek.
- For more than 90% of babies with a blocked tear duct, the ducts become normal before they are 12 months old with little or no treatment.
- You can wipe away the tears or sticky discharge with a clean cotton ball, or cloth, that has been dampened.
- Your doctor or nurse may also show you how to massage the baby's tear duct. This seems to help the tears to drain away.
- Sometimes an infection can develop. There might be more white or yellow discharge from the eye, and there can be swelling and redness of the eyelids and the side of the nose. If there is an infection, the baby needs to be checked by a doctor, as treatment with an antibiotic may be needed.
- If the tear ducts do not begin working normally, the duct may need to be opened with a fine probe when the baby is about 12 months old. This is a simple operation, but it needs to be done under an anaesthetic.
- By the time they are about 2 months old babies usually 'fix' well on things such as a face (keep their eyes still while they are looking at it).
- They will watch moving things for a little while.
- They will begin to recognise faces, especially the face of their mother. They still see things that are close more clearly than things that are further away, but they will show interest in things that are a couple of metres away.
- By the time they are 3 months old they will be able to recognise their mother, and other people who spend a lot of time with them, as they walk in the door.
- Babies show that they see you by smiling or laughing, or stopping what they are doing to look at you.
- Their distance vision is getting clearer and they can follow you with their eyes as you move around the room.
- They will start to look carefully at something that is close and soon they will be able to reach out and touch it. This is the start of their eye-hand coordination (how they are able to control their movements as they touch something they are looking at).
- By this age they can usually control their eye movements so that the eyes move together when they are looking at something.
- Around 4 months, babies can start to reach for things that they see, and soon they can grasp things, then look closely at them.
- They will be able to watch people and things that are moving quite fast, and they will look around to see interesting things.
- By now they will be looking around when you go out, and they need more interesting things to look at when they are home. They will be listening to words carefully now, and it will help their language development if you name the things that they can see, such as their hands and feet, clothes, nappies, bath and toys while you are playing with them.
Note: If their eyes seem crossed much of the time, this needs to be checked by a doctor. Sometimes 'crossed' eyes can be seen more easily in a photo, where you may be able to see that the light of a flash reflects on different parts of the cornea (the clear part at the front of the eye) on each side. The spot of light might be to the right of the pupil on one side, and to the left side of the pupil on the other side.
- By 6 months babies are starting to use their eyes together well. This means that they see things in 3-dimensions (they are able to see how far things are away, as well as what their shape is).
- Because they can start to judge distance, they will be able to reach out for lots of things that they see and usually they will take them to their mouths (to taste and feel them).
- Soon they will start to look more closely at things, turning them around, noticing how they change shape.
- They will be very alert, watching what is going on around them, moving their heads so they can see things that move around behind them.
- Things that might hurt them need to be kept out of reach, and even out of sight, as they will try to move towards things that look interesting.
- Some babies can crawl over to things by 6 months and others will roll to get to things that they can see. Some quite normal babies will not be able to move towards things for another month or so.
- They will also start to look at pictures for a few seconds, so now could be the time to start showing them books (for a few seconds or so). It is best to start with clear simple pictures with bright colours first. Have a look at Reading with babies.
- By 8 months babies can see things quite clearly and are starting to be good at getting their hands and eyes to work together. They will spot something, move towards it, pick it up and look at it.
- Some things will still go into their mouths, but they will often spend more time looking.
- When things go out of sight (maybe something has dropped), they can now remember that they were looking at something and will look around to find it again.
- Babies now clearly recognise their mother and other people. For a while your baby may clearly show you that she wants to be mostly with mum, and will look at other people, then turn away especially if they move close to her.
- Show her and name things in her room and in your house, and things that she sees when you go out.
- By 12 months babies can recognise people clearly when they are several metres away, and many are starting to use words for things that they can see, especially mum and dad.
- Their 3-D vision is good now, a very useful skill when they are learning to walk.
- Books and pictures become more interesting, but only for a few seconds, people and other moving objects are still the thing they are most interested in.
There are some people who think that use of flash lights when taking photographs of young babies may cause some harm to the baby's eyes. While it probably does not cause much harm, if any, there are ways of taking photographs which do not need flash, and these would be the safest way of taking photos. For example, photographs taken outdoors in the shade of a tree, or other shady places do not need flashes, and because the light is diffused (coming from many directions), you will get a better picture than one taken with one source of light (the flash). Check that the flash function is turned off, because the light meter in a digital camera may still trigger the flash if there are dark areas in the background. For cameras using film, use of fast films (eg ISO 400) will also mean that a flash is not needed.
CanDo4Kids 'Health eyes, happy kids'
Buckingham T (Ed), 'Visual problems in childhood' Butterworth Heinemann 1993.
Edward DP, Kaufman LM 'Anatomy, development and physiology of the visual system' Pediatric Clinics of North America, 2003 Vol 50:1, 1-23
Lehman S 'Tear duct obstruction and surgery' Nemours Foundation, KidsHealth.org Click here
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.