By Dr. Lin Day, Baby Sensory
The next time you read a book, stop for a moment and marvel at the amazing
capacity of the brain to carry out such an intricate task. Processing information
and co-ordinating the eyes involves many complex interactions between the brain
and senses. Sensations from the outside world are changed into electrical
impulses and carried to the brain, which then decodes the information to
produce the image that is seen. Although the process of gathering and
deciphering information begins before birth, as soon as the baby leaves the
womb, the sense organs work overtime. This is the beginning of sensory
This article summarizes some of the most important findings about the
development of the baby’s senses in the first year and suggests ways of leading
The learning ability of a baby in the first year of life is phenomenal. Throughout
the first year, the baby’s brain goes through a process of development and
specialisation unlike any other time in life. The potential for learning lies in
providing conditions which enable the baby to develop fully, being aware of the
different stages of development that babies pass through, observing them to
find out how to build on their experiences and experimenting with different
textures, sights, sounds, smells and tastes. In so doing, babies are given the
best possible opportunity to learn about the world while they are still sensitive
and absorbent. The good news is that sensory experiences can accelerate not
Copyright Baby Sensory© 2008 2
only the learning of babies, but also the learning of children with learning
Sensory experiences from birth
In recent years, much publicity has been given to the French physician,
Frederick Leboyer, who was responsible for creating awareness of the
functioning senses of the newborn in maternity wards. Leboyer’s revolutionary
book ‘Birth without Violence’ inspired mothers all over the world to give birth in
an environment that mirrored the baby’s prenatal surroundings. His work closely
followed the work of Maria Montessori, who believed that experiences in early
infancy had far-reaching implications for improving the quality of human life
intellectually, physically and emotionally. Montessori realised that babies were
far from passive in their learning and that they had an immense desire to
explore the environment by means of their senses.
The sense of touch
Transition from the womb to warm water, approximate in temperature to the
amniotic fluid, gives the baby the opportunity of making a gradual adjustment to
the environment. Soft lighting and soothing music ensure that the first sensory
experiences are as tranquil as possible. After this, contact may be with the
mother who reassures the baby that the world is a warm and comforting place
to be. Research increasingly supports the fact that touching the skin heightens
sensory awareness and triggers the production of endorphins, chemicals that
bring about feelings of happiness. What is certain is that babies who are
touched and caressed are more likely to grow up to be loving social beings.
Babies will examine and concentrate at length on textured objects that have a
particular feel. Through the sense of touch, the brain builds up interconnecting
circuits within and between the motor cortex of the cerebellum, which governs
action, and the frontal lobes responsible for logical thinking. Babies often
become attached to a soft blanket or a special object which provides
psychological comfort and security during periods of separation from the
mother. Such attachment is normal.
Growing use of the hands in the second half of the first year leads to important
discoveries about the different properties of objects. This is the perfect time
to introduce interesting toys that encourage exploration, develop hand-eye coordination
and perception. All areas of sensory development will be enhanced by
the use of a treasure basket filled with interesting natural or household objects
and textured materials. Changing the contents regularly adds novelty and
The lips and tongue are sensitive areas for examining objects and mouthing
provides the baby with a very accurate image of size and shape. Mouthing is also
a fundamental way in which the baby learns about weight, taste, smell and
temperature. Mouthing gradually decreases as babies use their hands more; this
leads to the discovery of new kinds of information.
At birth, the eye and brain areas responsible for vision are immature, which
explains why very young babies are unable to see red, yellow and pastel colours
clearly. Bold black and white patterns provide the greatest contrast. However,
unless the baby has a visual problem, black and white toys are not necessary to
promote normal vision.
Faces are particularly attractive to the young baby, although the most
stimulating image after birth is the mother's face. The newborn searches out
the pupil, which also resembles the shape of the nipple. Objects up to a distance
of 20 – 25 centimetres (8 – 10 inches) can be seen, which turns out to be the
distance at which the mother holds the baby when nursing or cuddling. Attention
may also be fixed on objects to the right or to the left rather than on objects
directly in front or above. A mobile directly above the cot is less likely to catch
the baby’s interest than one placed to one side.
The pathways that relay information from the eye to the occipital lobe at the
back of the brain develop rapidly. By the age of two months, both eyes can focus
equally and track the movement of an object if it is not too far away. Colours
become distinct with preference shown first towards red and yellow and then
green and blue. By the age of three months, the baby will follow an object in a
full arc, from right to left. At this stage, the baby is particularly fascinated by
moving lights, providing they are not too bright.
By the age of 6 months, pastel colours are recognised and small objects can be
spotted from a distance. The baby also develops depth perception (3-
dimensional sight) and will turn an object over to get a different perspective.
Babies that watch television see images in two dimensions and are unable to
locate the precise size, position and shape of an object.
At 8 months, colour vision is fully developed and the baby begins to see with
much greater accuracy. Simple puzzles, building blocks and stacking toys are
good for getting the eyes and hands to work together at this stage. However,
eye-hand co-ordination is the result of visual development and many months of
learning in the first year.
Activities that strengthen the eye muscles and encourage them to work as a
team are crucial for the development of eye-hand coordination. Being able to
read and write depends on eye-teaming and the ability to distinguish line, shape
and position in space. Even so, it takes four to five years for vision to reach the
full adult level, which is why continual visual stimulation is so important.
The continued formation of the auditory pathways is influenced by exposure to
noise of every kind in the first year. The newborn shows a significant
preference for the mother’s voice, lullabies, music, pure tones (e.g. flute) and
white noise. The monotonous sound of the vacuum cleaner, the tumble drier or
the hum of a car engine can be particularly soothing to a young baby.
Songs and rhymes introduce babies to a variety of sound patterns, new words
and changes in pitch and melody and lay the foundations for later reading,
writing and mathematics. Musical interaction, where the baby is an active
participant, provides an outlet for frustration and tension and promotes the
production of antibodies, leading to improved health and well-being. Being noisy
is one of the most exciting and enjoyable experiences that a baby can have!
Research shows that early musical experiences leave their imprint on the brain.
The National Geographic ‘My Brilliant Brain – Born Genius’ episode on November
26, 2007, gave a remarkable insight into how musical ability can be developed
from an early age. Lack of early experience, however, greatly limits the ability
to pick out a melody on an instrument and the ability to make pitch
discriminations. In cultures where music is a part of daily life, babies can
discriminate differences in frequency and melodic contour and match specific
pitches. Tone deafness is almost unheard of!
There is abundant evidence to show that ear infections can be a major cause of
learning problems in later life. Middle ear infections, for example, can cause the
auditory pathways to be laid down in a very unpredictable manner in the first
year. They can also interfere with the development of balance and cause visual
tracking problems. Chronic ear infections may also lead to mouth breathing,
which prevents the body from getting the oxygen it needs for brain
development (50% of the body’s oxygen is used by the brain). Mouth breathing
can cause speech problems, which may be difficult to correct later on. Early
intervention, however, can make a dramatic difference to the development of
Studies have shown that babies develop their sense of smell long before the
other four senses. Within a few hours, the newborn uses the sense of smell to
locate the mother, which is why cuddling is so important. The newborn also
recognizes the smell of breast milk and can distinguish it from the milk of a
stranger. A cloth sprinkled with the mother’s milk or the familiar smell of a
security blanket can be very comforting to a young baby. There is also evidence
to suggest that pleasant smells can actually boost the immune system, relieve
stress and induce sleep.
Research has shown that smell stimulates several receptors in the part of the
brain that is also responsible for basic learning skills. However, it is the
olfactory receptors high up in the nasal passage that have the capacity to
distinguish more than 9,000 different smells. Each receptor has a place where
an odour molecule can form a bond with it so the brain can perceive the smell
correctly. Smelling does not require air; it simply requires an odour molecule.
This is why babies can detect scent through the amniotic fluid and aquatic
animals can smell in water!
There is a special relationship between the sense of smell and the sense of
taste. Taste buds on the tongue can distinguish four qualities – sweet, sour,
bitter and salt: all other tastes are detected by the olfactory receptors in the
nasal passage. Newborns are actually able to discern a variety of flavours, which
may occur in the breast milk. Babies that are fed exclusively fed on breast milk
or formula may resist the taste of vegetables and fruits and it may take as many
as 20 attempts before they are accepted. Babies also have a tongue reflex,
which makes them push out their tongues during feeding, which may be
interpreted as dislike of a certain food. However, it is important to realize that
babies have widely different preferences during the first year of life.
• Babies have a natural interest in exploring the world through their senses
• The ability to use the senses is related to experiences from birth
• Stimulating the baby with different textures, sights, sounds, smells and
tastes develops neural connections between the brain cells and develops
• An impoverished sensory environment creates fewer neural connections
than a rich sensory environment
• Everything the baby hears sees, touches, smells or tastes provides a
basis for all future learning