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Health answers: How well can newborns see?

Q. How well can newborns see?

A. A newborn’s visual system doesn’t yet see the world as we do. Angela Brown, a psychologist who studies infant vision at Ohio State University, says that the eye’s light-sensitive retina is not fully mature at birth, and it lacks a structure called the fovea at its center that gives us our sharp central vision (try reading at a 45-degree angle to see how difficult it is to resolve details outside your fovea). A baby’s brain also hasn’t yet learned to process complex visual input.

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Newborns can focus on objects, but Brown says they can’t distinguish details well. In studies, their eyes will follow a pattern of thick black and white stripes held at arm’s length against a gray background, but if the stripes are thinner than about ¼ inch, most don’t distinguish the stripes from gray. Their visual acuity improves dramatically over the next few months, and beginning at 2 months, babies begin to use both eyes together to see objects in three dimensions.

Babies also demonstrate an ability to distinguish colors in the first few months of life. “Babies’ preferences for color are governed by how easy they are to distinguish from gray,” Brown says, with bolder colors making a bigger impression than pastels. “The ability to tell the difference between light and dark is really one of the main limitations,” she adds. To provide visual stimuli for your baby, go bold with big shapes and a high contrast between light and dark.

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