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Baby vision, hearing and sensory development

Parents of newborn babies are always anxious. How well their baby can see or hear are often big concerns.

These worries should be eased by the NHS Healthy Child Programme. This includes a series of reviews, screening tests and information to support parents.

The programme begins in your GP surgery, local clinic or children's centre.

Checks and measurements will be recorded from shortly after your baby is born in a Personal Child Health Record (PCHR) – better known as a baby's red book.

How well can newborn babies see?

Babies are born with a full visual capacity to see objects and colours. However, newborns are extremely shortsighted, so far away objects are blurry to them.

  • Newborns can see objects about 20-40cm (eight to 16in) away quite sharply.
  • Newborns prefer to look at faces over other shapes and objects, and at round shapes with light and dark borders (such as your adoring eyes).

So, you’re not imagining it when you see your baby fixate on your face and eyes, especially during a feed, when your face is about 30cm (12in) away.

Newborns are examined for several eye conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma, and all premature babies are screened for retinopathy of prematurity, when blood vessels in the eyes have not fully formed.

When to worry about your baby’s vision:

  • If your baby never seems to fixate on objects about 30cm (12in) away - especially your face - in the first weeks or months, tell your GP or health visitor.
  • At three to four months, if your baby still looks ‘cross-eyed’ (the left and right eyes seem to be looking in different directions), this could be a sign of a visual or eye muscle problem and should be evaluated. Tell your baby’s doctor if you’re concerned.

How well do newborns hear?

Newborn babies can hear fairly well, but not perfectly. The middle ear of a newborn is full of fluid and this impairs hearing to a small extent. Additionally, the entire hearing apparatus is somewhat immature. That's why newborn babies respond best to high-pitched, exaggerated sounds and voices.

Because they learned this in the womb, newborns are born with the ability to distinguish their mother's voice and respond to it above all others.

When to worry about your baby's hearing

If your newborn does not respond to loud sounds with a startled reaction or never seems to turn towards your voice in the first months, ask your baby's GP or paediatrician about it to make sure there is no potential for hearing loss. The NHS offers hearing tests to all babies within the first few weeks of life, so you will know early on that your baby's hearing is fine.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on March 09, 2016

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