Your baby is absorbing their surroundings during each waking moment. All the sights, sounds, and smells delight their senses and help them learn about the world and their place in it.
And while you may be tempted to surround your baby with a rainbow of colors, tiny newborns may be more enticed by bold black-and-white prints.
Here’s more about your baby’s ability to see color, which colors they see first, and what signs may indicate a condition like color blindness.
Babies can tell the difference between light and dark when they’re in the womb. This is why young babies may enjoy books or other prints that feature contrasting black-and-white images. However (and contrary to popular belief), babies don’t only see in black and white as newborns.
Young babies are indeed capable of seeing colors, but their brains may not perceive them as clearly or vividly as older children and adults do. The first primary color your baby can see is red, and this happens a few weeks into life.
When choosing visual materials, toys, and books for your child, look for high contrast prints in bold colors.
Black and white just happen to be opposite ends of the spectrum, so they do make a good choice for young babies and help draw their attention better than items with more subtle hues.
Related: When do newborn babies start to see?
It’s not just colors that your newborn doesn’t see clearly. After birth, your baby’s vision is quite blurry.
Your little one can best focus on things that are 8 to 10 inches away from their eyes, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). This means your baby can see your face if you’re holding them, but they may have trouble making out another face across the room.
By 8 weeks old, the AOA says, your baby’s vision improves enough that they can more clearly see your face and another face (or object) nearby.
That said, shifting focus between two objects is still difficult. You may even notice that their eyes cross or don’t work perfectly as a team, but that’s considered to be fine at this early age.
Related: When do babies’ eyes change color?
Babies begin to perceive colors more and more between 2 and 4 months old. To start, they’re able to tell the difference between shades of greens and reds. The exact timing for when your baby will see these colors is individual, so there’s no set week or month when it happens for all babies universally.
Encourage your child’s development by providing toys and books with bold colors. In particular, your child may enjoy bright primary or rainbow shades — red, orange, green, blue, etc. — versus more muted hues.
By 5 months old, the AOA explains, babies can see most colors.
They still don’t see the hues quite as vividly as adults do, but other key features of vision are also developing at this time. These include your child’s:
- depth perception
- eye-body coordination
- binocular vision (ability of their eyes to work together)
Even so, it’s difficult to know if your child is able to see colors at this age because their communication skills are also still forming. All this development is a lot of hard work, that’s for sure!
It won’t be until your child starts talking — and then learning the words to describe and identify colors — that you’ll truly know what they’re seeing.
Related: Get ready for all these precious first-year milestones
Color blindness is a condition where a person cannot distinguish between certain colors. It doesn’t necessarily mean your child can’t see any colors, though. The most common colors impacted are red and green, according to the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus (AAPOS).
While rare, there is a more severe form of color blindness called achromatopsia. With this condition, children see only shades of gray.
You may or may not notice symptoms of color blindness with babies. Your little one is likely still learning to assign the correct labels to colors, so incorrectly calling a crayon red when it’s blue isn’t necessarily a sign.
As your child gets older (think toddler or preschooler), early signs may include things like:
- using incorrect words to describe colored objects (for example, saying leaves on a tree are brown instead of green)
- coloring pictures using “incorrect” colors for common objects (like purple sky or orange grass)
- difficulty distinguishing between red and green crayons, colored pencils, markers, etc.
- having keen night vision
- having a keen sense of smell
- experiencing light sensitivity
- having more difficulty distinguishing colors in low light or when many colors are clustered together
- having a lack of interest in coloring books or coloring worksheets
- experiencing a headache or irritation when looking at red images or text on a green background
Color blindness is more common in those assigned male at birth — around 1 in 12 men (and 8 percent of white males) may be affected by some form of color blindness. By contrast, only around 0.5 percent of those assigned female at birth experience a degree of color blindness.
Related: What causes color blindness?
Contact your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns about your little one’s vision or ability to see color.
The doctor can help you understand the different milestones for vision and assess whether or not your baby is developing on track. If the doctor has concerns, they may refer you to a pediatric ophthalmologist for further evaluation.
Also make an appointment with an eye doctor if your child has:
- family history of vision issues or eye diseases (lazy eye, crossed eyes, nearsightedness, astigmatism, retinoblastoma, etc.)
- atypical vision behavior
- signs of distress or discomfort related to vision
- certain health conditions (being born prematurely, Down Syndrome, neurofibromatosis, pediatric arthritis)
- developmental, behavioral, or learning issues that may relate to vision
Regardless, the AOA recommends that all children have an optometric examination before beginning school — and sometimes earlier. Ophthalmologists can identify any issues with your child’s overall vision, as well as any eye diseases or conditions as well as color blindness or deficiencies they may have.
Other guidelines, such as those from the AAPOS and the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend eye exams and vision screenings during childhood but not necessarily before starting school and not necessarily by an optometrist. Most of the time, these exams can be done in your pediatrician’s office as part of a general well visit.
It’s always a good idea to speak with your child’s pediatrician to determine what’s best for them.
Related: What do colorblind people see?
There’s no proven treatment to address all forms of color blindness.
In certain cases, a doctor may suggest color blindness–correcting glasses that help improve a person’s ability to distinguish between colors. Speak with a pediatrician or ophthalmologist to see if this treatment is an option for your child.
The good news is that color blindness doesn’t have to be a severe limitation. Instead, it takes some adaptation and — over time — your child may learn to identify colors by shade or brightness versus hue.
The AAPOS suggests labeling crayons and other art supplies to help your child tell between them. Supply written materials in black and white when possible for easy reading. And work on teaching your child the colors of common objects so they’ll have a reference point when discussing colors with their peers.
It’s a colorful world, and your baby is soaking in more of it with each passing day. As your little one grows, practice naming the objects and colors in their environment to help them develop their vocabulary and word association.
Colorful toys might include blocks, crayons, puzzles, rainbow stackers, or anything else where each color is represented on a different piece or part.
But don’t worry if your baby isn’t labeling colors correctly just yet — that milestone isn’t reached until somewhere between ages 2 and 3. Focus (no pun intended) on the developmental milestones along the way.