When Can Babies See Clearly? The Fascinating Way Eyesight Develops

On of the most sacred moments is when you first see your baby face-to-face. But the question is: when can your baby see you clearly for the first time? But the question of when can babies see is more complicated than some of the other baby milestones. All the components that work together to help baby see—colors, depth perception, and three-dimensional vision—develop at different times, which means baby’s eyesight improves gradually throughout the first six months of life.

Read on for answers to the following questions about when can babies see:

  • What do babies see at birth?
  • When can babies see color?
  • When can babies see clearly?
  • What’s the best way to improve baby’s vision?

When Can Babies See?

4 weeks gestation

Babies eyes start to develop as early as four weeks gestation, when the optic nerve starts to develop.

8 weeks gestation

By the eighth week, baby’s eyes are in the appropriate place and his/her retina begins to form.

16 weeks gestation

Around 16 weeks, baby’s eyes are sensitive to light, though they won’t open until about 27 weeks. And even once baby’s eyes are fully developed, he/she won’t be able to see much. (If you want to know more about baby’s week-by-week development, check out my pregnancy week-by-week.)

At Birth

By the time baby is born, he/she can technically see, but everything is hazy—their visual acuity is just 5 percent of what an adult’s is. (source)

Just like walking and talking, seeing is something babies have to learn.

How Far Can Babies See?

At birth, babies can only focus on objects eight to 10 inches from their faces. (source)

Newborn vision starts at about 20/400 and slowly improves as baby gets older. By about four months, baby can begin to focus on objects further than 12 inches away and reach for them. By about six months, a baby with normal vision will have 20/20 eyesight. (source)

When Can Babies See Color?

“It’s a myth that babies see in black and white,” says researcher Anna Franklin

According to Franklin, newborns can see large, intense patches of red on a gray background. By two months, babies can identify red and green colors; a few weeks later, they can also distinguish blues and yellows. (source)

So why are black and white nursery decor and toys, like this and this, so popular if babies can, in fact, see color? Though babies do have a wider range of color vision that initially thought, colors aren’t as obvious to babies—they have a hard time seeing color unless it’s highly saturated.

When Can Babies See Clearly?

Your baby knows you and the sound of your voice well before he is even born, but things aren’t immediately clear. Here’s what to expect:

At about 2 months:

Baby will begin to recognize your facial features around two months. At this age, baby is starting to see further, can focus their eyes on your face, and is able to hold eye contact. (source)

At about 3 months:

At this age, babies will start to follow moving objects with their eyes and reach for things. They can also track objects in a vertical line and when moved circularly.

At about 5 months:

By this time, baby’s vision is developed enough that they can notice different shades of colors and can see you from afar. They’re depth perception is also improving, which will help them as they start to crawl. (Note: Crawling helps eye-hand-foot-body coordination. It’s important not to push your baby to walk too soon. According to the American Optometric Association, early walkers may not be as adept at using their eyes together as babies who crawl a lot. Read more about why baby walkers aren’t recommended here.)

At about 6 months:

By the age of six months, babies have more or less adult levels of visual acuity, vision clarity, and depth perception.

What Does a Baby See Exactly?

Do you want to see the world through your baby’s eyes? Boston Children’s Hospital developed an innovative app that provides more insight into the question when can babies see and allows you see what your baby sees at different ages. It’s called the BabySee app. Check it out; it’s a lot of fun!

How to Help Improve Your Baby’s Vision

Yes, mama, there are things you can do to improve your baby’s vision. The good news is, you are probably doing these things already, but if not, add some of these activities into your daily routine.

Alternate sides when breastfeeding

One of the benefits of breastfeeding is that your face is within your newborn’s range of vision. If you alternate sides when feeding, switching between breasts, your baby will follow your face. Switching sides encourages strong visual development in both eyes.

Get up close and personal with baby

Crawl around on the floor, and join them during tummy time! Tummy time doesn’t just strengthen their neck and shoulder muscles, it provides stimulation for brain and vision development, too. Make funny faces and noises to encourage baby to look at you and follow your actions.

Give baby high contrast items in primary colors

Baby’s show a preference for high contrast toys, even if they can see beyond black and white. Rather than hand toys directly to baby, place the toys within your baby’s range of vision—approximately eight to twelve inches away—to encourage them to reach for the objects.

Hang a mobile over baby’s crib or bassinet

To encourage vision tracking, hang a mobile over baby’s crib or bassinet. Mobiles help improve eyesight, because baby learns to follow and focus on an object as it moves.

Put baby forward-facing whenever possible

Going for a walk around the neighborhood? There are other people, squirrels, trees, cars, and so many other interesting things for baby to see. Staring at the stroller’s cloth isn’t very stimulating, and won’t help with eyesight development. Let baby observe the world around them!

Note: Avoid wearing baby forward-facing while babywearing, since there is some evidence it can lead to hip dysplasia.  

Play around in the nursery

Move baby’s crib every few months; it gives them something new to look at and sparks curiosity. Talk to them if they’re in their crib and you’re walking around the room tidying up. Your voice draws their attention, and their eyes follow.

Play peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake

Remember object permanence? Peek-a-boo is the perfect, simple game to reinforce this concept in your baby’s mind. When playing pat-a-cake their eyes follow your hand’s movements, and as they start to participate, their hand-eye coordination will improve.

Do Babies Need Eye Exams?

Your baby’s vision is checked at birth, and your pediatrician will continue to monitor your baby’s vision during routine checkups. The American Optometric Association recommends a comprehensive vision exam at six months, when babies can see more clearly.

At this time, optometrists will check:

  • visual tracking,
  • the eye’s response to light
  • for eye symmetry and things like lazy or crossed eyes
  • and even for cataracts!

Do know that unless a problem is suspected, many parents won’t take their babies for a formal eye exam until later. (For example, you may need to get their eyes examined for admittance into pre-school.)

Do Babies Have 20/20 Vision?

In general, no.

Babies who will go on to have “perfect” 20/20 vision with no need for glasses when they are older may take time to get there.

The eyes are still developing and learning to focus well into toddlerhood. For example, my son had 20/30 vision when he was 5 years old, but by 7 years old, he had 20/20 vision.

The American Academy of Pediatrics set these standards for vision by age:

  • 36 to 47 months: 20/50 or above is considered passing for children 3-4 years old
  • 48-59 months: 20/40 or above
  • 60 months and older: 20/30 or above

So, “when babies can see” is an evolving process!

How Do You Know if There’s a Problem?

Baby’s developmental milestones, including when babies can see clearly, are general guidelines. Most children will meet these guideposts at their own pace. However, there are definitely warning signs that your baby may have vision problems. If you notice your child exhibiting the below behaviors, talk to your doctor:

  • Baby experiences excessive tearing
  • Baby is cross-eyed or has a drooping eye(s)
  • Baby isn’t tracking objects after three months
  • Baby’s eyes flutter
  • Baby is overly sensitive to light
  • Baby’s eyes are cloudy or look unusual

What About You?

When did you notice your baby tracking your movements and making eye contact? Did your child have any vision challenges? Share with us in the comments below!

About the Author

Genevieve Howland is a childbirth educator and breastfeeding advocate. She is the bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and creator of the Mama Natural Birth Course. A mother of three, graduate of the University of Colorado, and YouTuber with over 75,000,000 views, she helps mothers and moms-to-be lead healthier and more natural lives.

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