Senses & Sensibility
Your tiny, squirming newborn is so helpless and seemingly so unformed, it can be hard to imagine that essential elements of her personality and ability to learn are already in place, waiting to emerge. But within a few weeks of her arrival, she’ll set about getting to know the world around her, primarily by using her five senses. In time, her sense of sight, for instance, will enable her to recognize and find comfort in your smiling face. She’ll use her sense of touch to explore the buttons on your blouse and investigate their texture with her fingers (and her mouth).
Observing and engaging your baby’s senses supports her development and helps you get to know her better. “As your child becomes more competent, try to integrate all the senses,” recommends Marsha Baker, an occupational therapist with the Erikson Institute’s Fussy Baby Network in Chicago, IL. “Combine touch with hearing and sight.”
On the following pages you’ll learn about some of the sensory stages of year one and find suggestions for interacting with your baby that will help her build confidence and reach the next stage. Keep in mind that every child develops at her own pace, so there’s no exact timetable for graduating from one stage to the next. But the road map is clear about one thing: It’s an amazing journey!
Birth to 3 months
For your baby, the first 3 months are about adjusting to life outside the womb. She’ll spend most of her time eating and sleeping.
Many babies like to be swaddled in a warm blanket or a tucked-in wrap, which offers the same feeling of security of the womb. Your baby may also react strongly to temperature changes and will likely prefer soft fabrics.
- From you: Touching your baby is key, but watch how she reacts. “Some babies prefer to be held firmly, some don’t,” Baker says. Avoid stimulation overload. “If you’re stroking your infant, don’t talk on the phone and have the TV on at the same time,” advises Marsha Baker.
This is the least mature of a newborn’s senses. At birth, a baby sees blurry images (that’s why she prefers black-and-white patterns), and her eyes tend to wander and occasionally cross. She’ll focus best on things with strong outlines, like your face.
- From you: Since a baby can see only 8 to 12 inches in front of her, feed her as close to you as possible if you’re bottle-feeding. Breastfeeding puts a mom’s face at the perfect distance, says Maryanne Bourque, R.N., of the Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. Spend time gazing face-to-face as well.
A baby quickly recognizes the scent of her mother’s breast milk and her parents in general. She may crinkle her nose if your dog is smelly, but even that odor can comfort her as she soon grasps that the dog is part of the family.
- From you: If you’re heading to the pediatrician for a vaccination, bring a blanket that smells like your breast milk and swaddle her in it afterward. The familiar smell can help soothe her.
Although your baby’s hearing isn’t completely developed at birth, amazingly, your voice is distinguishable to her from day one, says Baker. She will likely associate it with comfort.
- From You: Coo to your baby and sing lullabies to soothe her. Consider playing a CD of nature sounds at home to help mask loud sounds, which can startle her.
Your baby’s taste buds are typically limited to breast milk or formula.
- From you: Babies are born with a sweet tooth, which is handy since breast milk is inherently sweet. “But an infant who switches to soy formula can adapt to its more bitter taste,” says Baker.
3 to 6 months
At this stage your baby will likely become more sociable and begin to develop control of her body.
Your little one will probably be eager to explore different textures. In addition, you’ll start to see her bring her hands together. “She’s starting to develop more tactile discrimination,” Baker says.
- From you: Because they “feel” with their mouths as well as with their hands and fingers, babies start putting everything into their mouths at this age. Give your child textured toys that are safe for her to mouth, like a ball made for babies.
Most babies now are able to discern bright colors and can focus on objects. “She’s also starting to use both eyes together. This is important for depth perception,” explains Baker.
- From you: Hold your baby up to a mirror so she can gaze at her own reflection. Also, because she likes to track motion, you can provide opportunities for her to watch kids playing and cars driving.
Infants at this stage typically become accustomed to the smell of things in the house. “Your baby is starting to develop emotional responses to smells,” Baker says.
- From you: If your baby responds negatively to a relative’s scent, don’t make her endure it. Even babies need their space.
Your baby may begin to babble and imitate sounds, and she’ll show more preference for certain sound patterns. She may understand “no.”
- From you: Describe out loud what you see while you walk or drive around, Bourque suggests. You’ll instinctively pause as you speak, allowing your baby to pick up on the natural give-and-take of conversation.
It’s likely that your baby will expand her preferences a bit and be more interested in salty things. This gets her ready for table food, Baker explains.
- From you: You may be tempted to give your baby solids, but waiting can cut down on allergic reactions. By continuing to feed her breast milk or formula, you ensure that she’s getting the nutrients she needs.
6 months to a year
Most babies at this stage become more active and responsive. Yours may push and pull with her legs and then learn to sit up, roll over, scoot, and crawl.
An infant may begin using the pincer grasp to pick things up. “As motor skills develop, babies use their hands to manipulate objects, and their ability to pick objects up increases,” says Baker. “It’s as though they ask themselves, ‘Am I going to squish this banana or pick it up and put it in my mouth?’”
- From you: Play games like The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, in which you start with your fingers at your baby’s toes and walk them up her leg, Baker suggests. “It helps your baby learn to discriminate touch on her body,” she says.
By 6 months, most of your baby’s visual motor systems will likely be in place. Infants can typically visually fixate on, track, and switch their gaze between objects.
- From you: Bring out the family photos. “From 9 to 12 months, babies love looking at photos,” Baker says. “They can recognize emotions in a face.”
Your baby may realize when you’re not nearby by the absence of your smell. She may become even more irritable when you’re out of sight. But the fact that you leave — and come back — is a key developmental experience for her.
- From you: Show your baby that flowers have a fragrance and share different scents, Bourque suggests.
By 7 months, your baby will likely recognize her name and, by 9 months, she may be saying words like “mama,” “dada,” and “uh-oh.” She can also tell which sounds are language and which aren’t, and she is able to associate a sound with its meaning. “If the doorbell rings, she understands that someone is coming into the house,” says Baker.
- From you: The more you talk, the more your baby will start to relate objects to their names. Listening to music (or even vacuuming!) is also a good idea. “Babies like rhythms and sounds,” Bourque says.
You can begin offering your baby solids — bananas, sweet potatoes, green beans — although more for variety than for nutrients. (Your baby still gets her main nutrients from breast milk or formula.)
- From you: Experts agree that you generally need to offer a new food ten to 20 times before an infant knows whether she likes it. “You don’t want to force-feed,” Baker says, “but it is an important time for children to grasp that food has many different textures and tastes.”
Babies go through astounding changes in the first 12 months of life. As your baby’s first birthday approaches, take a moment to marvel at how far she — and her senses — have come since you first met her.