Your baby’s visual system is not fully developed at birth and continues to develop gradually over the first days and months of life. In fact, from your baby’s perspective at birth, the world is black and white, blurry and rather flat. As the days and months go on, they begin to focus, move their eyes and start to see the world around them. While each child will grow and develop on his or her own schedule, knowing an infant’s vision milestones will help you ensure that your infant is on track to achieving good vision and eye health and start treatment early if there is a problem.
Birth - 3 months
Because newborn babies’ eyes and visual system are underdeveloped, they can not focus their eyes on close objects or perceive depth or color. Babies need to learn to move, focus and coordinate eye movements to team the eyes (have them move together as a team). The brain also needs to learn how to process the visual information from the eyes to understand and interact with the world. In fact, until about 3 months, the optimal distance a baby can focus on is about 8 - 10 inches from their face, about the distance their parents face will be during feeding.
Your baby will start to be able to perceive color within the first 2-3 weeks, however it will take a few months to learn how to focus and use the eyes, to track objects, differentiate between two objects and shift from one object to the other. During this time you may notice that the eyes appear crossed and do not work together or team. This is quite common at the early stages of development, however if one eye appears to be constantly turned in or out, seek a doctor’s evaluation.
At around three months, as hand-eye coordination begins to develop, a baby should be able to follow a moving target with their eyes and reach for objects.
By 6 months, your baby will begin to move his eyes with more speed and accuracy, seeing at farther distances and focusing well. Color vision should be fully developed and the eyes should be able to work as a team and follow moving objects with relative ease. Hand-eye coordination and depth perception should be greatly improved as your baby will begin to understand the 3-dimensional world around them.
At six months, you should take your baby for his or her first comprehensive eye exam to ensure that the eyes are developing on track and there are no signs of congenital or infant eye disease.
At this stage of development babies will be coordinating vision and body movements by crawling, grasping, standing and exploring the surrounding world. They should be able judge distances accurately, throw a ball toward a target and pick up a small object with their fingers. Delays in motor development can sometimes indicate a vision problem.
The First Eye Exam
While at 6 months, your baby will not be able to read an eye chart, eye doctors can perform an infant eye exam through non-verbal testing to assess visual acuity (for nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism), eye teaming abilities and eye alignment. The eye doctor will also be able to see inside the eye for any signs of disease or problems that could affect eye or vision health.
InfantSEE® is a public health program in which participating optometrists provide a free comprehensive infant eye exam to babies between 6 and 12 months of age. The program was initiated to provide accessible eye and vision care for infants to ensure they have the best chances for normal development and quality of life.
If your child has any unusual symptoms such as excessive tearing, constant eye misalignment, red or crusty eyes or extreme light sensitivity consult an eye doctor as soon as possible.