Most people know that babies aren’t born with perfect 20/20 vision. But as a new parent, you might not know exactly what to expect in terms of when your baby’s vision will improve and when you should have their vision checked.
Let’s take a look at what you need to know, including a timeline for how your baby’s vision may develop and change in their first 2 years of life.
Experts recommend that healthy babies — without any concerning vision symptoms — should have their eyes examined by their pediatrician when they’re a newborn. This is part of the routine well baby schedule.
Your child’s pediatrician will likely continue checking your child’s eyes during their wellness checkups.
Typically, a pediatrician will look for any evidence that something could be off. This could be a problem with their pupil’s light reflex or an obvious physical sign that there’s something wrong with the surface of your child’s eyes.
The goal with these eye exams is to potentially catch any issues early and reduce the risk for vision loss — a scenario that can happen if a condition or abnormality is left undiagnosed or untreated.
Now that you know when you should have your child’s vision checked, what can you expect in their developmental timeline?
While babies aren’t born with perfect vision, things do begin to improve in terms of what they can see and process within months after being born.
A newborn baby has relatively poor eyesight and is very nearsighted. The ideal range for them to see an object or your face is between 8 and 10 inches away.
It’s not uncommon to see newborns with poor eye coordination. Even being cross-eyed is normal at this stage. But their eyes are still responsive to bright light or actual touch.
Expect that, as a newborn, your baby will mostly be able to see large shapes like faces and distinguish mostly black and white, with a few bright colors, too.
As they grow during this stage, their ability to focus and track objects will improve. And by the end of the fourth trimester (newborn to 3 months old), babies begin to become self-aware — their hands are often their new favorite toy to focus on.
During this stage, baby’s visual acuity (perception) begins to improve, along with other motor skills. A major hallmark is that around 5 months, your baby will be able to see in full color.
During this time, your baby will begin to reach for items or play with toys hanging from a mobile. This is part of why it’s important to keep baby engaged: Those fun baby gyms do more than keep little ones occupied; they also help with developing skills.
Between the ages of 4 and 6 months, your baby will use their vision to engage more with the world. This can include discovering themselves in a mirror or picking up dropped toys.
Babies will also gain better neck control, giving them the freedom to turn their heads to look at objects.
At this stage, your little one may go from simply staring at themselves in a mirror with curiosity to actually touching it. Likewise, fun games like peekaboo may become a mainstay in your household.
Depth perception and hand-eye coordination are going to be major achievements for your little one during this time. And part of that is helped by the fact that during this stage — usually around 8 months of age — babies begin to crawl, followed by pulling themselves up.
You may also notice that if your baby’s eyes were lighter in color at birth, they may darken throughout the first 6 through 12 months. This happens if melanin develops in their iris.
Occasionally, a child’s eye color can change for up to 3 years, but this isn’t common. A baby usually has their final eye color by 9 months.
At this stage, your baby is fully participating in the world around them, thanks to their vision and enhanced mobility.
By 10 months of age, babies usually exhibit fine grasping skills, using their thumb and forefinger to hold items. During this stage, babies are also able to watch fast-moving objects.
Even by the time your child is 12 months old, they’re still learning about their environment and how to navigate it. In this stage, your toddler is refining their fine motor skills by drawing as well as practicing memory recall when they look at pictures in books or photographs.
During this time, children realize that when they look in a mirror, they see themselves and not some other child. Their depth perception and ability to focus both near and far are also improved.
But their vision doesn’t get close to 20/20 until age 3 or so, and their depth perception will continue developing until they’re 4 to 6 years old.
While no parent or caretaker wants to think that their child might have a vision problem, certain signs can let you know it’s time to talk with a pediatrician or an eye doctor.
These signs may differ depending on your child’s age range.
Vision problems in infants
Like we mentioned, in the fourth trimester it’s not uncommon for a baby’s eyes to look crossed from time to time. But after 4 months, if your baby still has misaligned eyes, you should speak with your pediatrician.
Another major concern is poor visual tracking in babies older than 3 months. If your child struggles to follow objects passed in front of their face or doesn’t make steady eye contact, you should also speak with your doctor.
Vision problems in toddlers
A lazy eye, also known as amblyopia, is something that should be treated as soon as the symptoms are first seen. Often this condition doesn’t have any warning signs, but it can still impact vision.
Thankfully, some tests can be run to check your toddler’s vision even if they haven’t learned to read yet.
General signs to watch for
Regardless of your child’s age, if they exhibit any of the following signs, you should speak with your pediatrician or eye doctor. While some, like red or crusting eyelids, usually mean infection, others can indicate more serious conditions.
Things to look out for include:
- red or crusting eyelids
- extreme light sensitivity
- excessive tearing
- constant eye turning
- white pupils
Unsurprisingly, one of the best ways to encourage vision development with your little one is to play with them. Keeping baby engaged with the world around them can do wonders when it comes to helping them develop important hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.
Specifically, you should consider your baby’s vision skills when choosing toys and their placement. For example, since newborns can only see within an 8- to 10-inch range from their face, age-appropriate toys should be kept within this area.
Encourage activities like tummy time to help babies explore their world. While interactive tummy time mats are fantastic options, don’t forget that you are your baby’s biggest toy and one of the most interesting things in their lives.
Spend time cuddling with them, engaging them in conversation, and playing with them.
As your baby grows and begins to expand their motor skills, continue to engage them with fun games like patty-cake or peekaboo. You can also play with blocks or building toys together.
And of course, as your child begins to crawl, creep, or pull themselves up, be their biggest cheerleader.
As one of the five senses, your baby’s vision is essential in helping them navigate and learn more about their new world.
During the first year, a baby’s vision develops rapidly, and parents or caretakers can help them reach their milestones.
Most importantly, incorporating routine eye exams is essential to ensuring proper eye health and addressing any vision issues as soon as they arise.