Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Senses of the Newborn

Monika Pis, PhD, CPNP
Newborns have remarkable sensory capacity right after birth. To some degree, they also possess sensory and motor coordination. Get to know your newborn, enjoy her, and teach her how to sharpen her senses.

Infants’ vision is intact at birth, although the retina is still immature so they can only see well if a face or an object is placed about 8-12 inches away from their eyes. As the retina matures with time, the visual acuity of your child will improve.

Newborns' eyes are very sensitive to light and the baby will open her eyes only in dim light. Infants prefer to look at bright objects and can probably differentiate yellow, red, and green colors. They love to look at human faces, especially their mother’s, and this skill becomes clearly evident by 12 weeks of age. Newborns have the ability to imitate from the first days of life. For example, if the mom sticks her tongue out, the infant will stick out hers. This indicates the incredible sensory and motor coordination in a newborn.

Babies can hear and respond to sounds in the uterus. Therefore, their hearing is intact at birth. Full-term newborns respond to sudden loud sounds by startling and crying. When they hear pleasant sounds, such as a human voice or a rattle, they startle, brighten their expression, and become still while listening attentively. The infant may turn her eyes and the head toward the sound in an attempt to locate it.

Babies show preference for female high-pitched voices. However, lower tones, like male voices, produce a quieting response to an upset infant. By 1 month of age, infants can distinguish mom’s voice from other voices!

Early hearing is crucial for the development of language skills. Also, it is important in learning self-soothing and how to anticipate changes in the environment. Achievement of good emotional health and normal language skills are good reasons for the recommended newborn hearing screening.

The sense of smell allows newborns to get oriented in their environment. Babies as young as 5 days old are able to recognize the smell of their mother’s breast pad from those of others. Infants use their sense of smell to learn about their surroundings by linking smells with events. They also show strong preference for familiar odors.

Newborns have more taste buds than adults but at birth, they only have sensitivity to sweet and sour tastes. They develop sensitivity to salty and bitter tastes between 4 and 6 months of age. Taste preference is developed over time and shaped by experiences with food during the first year of life.

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