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What Do Babies See? >
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High-Contrast Research
Babies' brains don't work quite the same as adults. There is so much going on in this new world that their brains can become completely overwhelmed. High contrast shapes and patterns provide the baby with something simple and engaging to focus on, and in this focus or intense concentration they can allow their minds to rest. High contrast shapes may appear odd or even a little boring to adults, but they are designed to hold babies' attention and the results from them is breathtaking.

Researchers have repeatedly shown that newborns prefer to look at black and white geometric shapes, rather than bright colors or pastels.

In the early 1960's, Dr. Robert Fantz, a developmental psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who believed that babies under two years of age could see well, designed a "peep box" that surrounded a baby sitting in an infant seat. He placed two objects directly in the baby's view: a patterned black and white checkerboard and a plain gray card. Undetected, Dr. Fantz watched the baby through a little peephole and was able to determine that babies preferred the checkerboard to the non-patterned surface. Their eyes traveled consistently to the checkerboard.
Source: Fantz, R. "Maturation of Pattern Vision in Young Infants." Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Vol. 55 (1962), p. 907.

Once this was known, other studies followed in rapid succession. Dr. T.G.R. Bower, the behaviorial scientist at the University of Edinburgh, well known for his studies in infant development, showed infants several different black and white shapes, as well as plain white, red, and yellow cards. Again, babies chose to look at the black and white items.
Source: Bower, T.G.R., "A Primer of Infant Development. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1977, p. 9.

Dr. Phillip Salapatek, a child psychologist at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, designed an elaborate electronic tracking device to follow an infant's gaze. He learned that infants move their eyes to the edge of a black triangle on a white background rather than looking at the center of the blackness or whiteness. It was then understood that babies' eyes seek the border because it is there that the contrast between black and white is the greatest.
Source: Salapatek, P.H., Kessen, W., "Visual Scanning of Triangles by the Human Newborn.", Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Vol. 3 (1966), pp. 155-67.

More recent studies continue to show that infant vision capabilities include color vision for high contrast colors with black, white, and red preferred and contrast sensitivity for patterns with high contrast preferred.
Source: Dr. Craig, Ron, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, "Infant Physical Development", 2006

Colors that provide the most contrast are the most appealing to babies. Black and white, of course, afford the greatest contrast. What's so terrific about contrast? It has to do with the development of your newborn's eyes. The rods and cones structures of the retina that perceive color have not matured enough for him to perceive the values and intensities of red, blue, pink, yellow, purple, and green. Black and white are the easiest for him to perceive and his interest in these starkly contrasting colors continues until he is six to nine month old.

Deborah Brateman, the former head nurse of the Neonatal Intensive Care Nursery at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., reported that flash cards incorporating black and white patterns increase the amount of time babies spend looking at their environment from an average of 4 to 5 minutes to up to 45 minutes after being fed.

Of all the geometric designs and shapes, babies seem most captivated by circles. It is much easier for the newborn eye to make a series of jumps around a circle's edge than to navigate around corners. Add to that the importance of dark and light contrast, and you can understand then appeal for an infant of a mother's dark nipple on a lighter breast, the first circle that your newborn will gaze upon as he/she nurses after birth.
Source: Chaze, B.A., Ludington, S.M., "Infant Stimulation in the Intensive Care Nursery", American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 84, No. 1, (Jan. 1984, pp. 68-71. Return to Top >
Brain Development: Myelination
One of the most significant events in post birth brain development is "myelination". Newborns' brains contain very little myelin, the dense impermeable substance that covers the length of mature brain cells and is necessary for clear, efficient electrical transmission. This lack of myelin is the main reason why babies and young children process information so much more slowly than adults.

Most areas of the brain begin adding this critical insulation within the first two years of life. Myelination of the cerebral cortex begins in the primary motor and sensory areas—regions that receive the first input from the eyes, ears, nose, skin, and mouth.
Source: Postnatal Brain Development, www.zerotothree.org
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What Do Babies See?
When your newborn looks at the world he/she:

> sees clearly within 13 inches from his face

> can follow appealing objects and move his eyes from one object to another when they are held 10 to 13 inches from his face

> looks at the edge of figures for contrast between shape and background

> can see and distinguish some colors

> can discriminate among shapes and choose one of his preference

> perceives depth and three-dimensional objects.

In a scientific experiment conducted to determine exactly what images were focused on newborns' retinas, it was discovered that infants actually could see sixteen stripes in a 1-inch square without fuzziness.
Source: Fantz, R. "Maturation of Pattern Vision in Young Infants." Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Vol. 55 (1962), pp. 907-17.

> At two months his eyes have matured to the point where they can function together, stereoscopically. He is able to see things at the end of his nose. You can hold visual toys 20 inches from his eyes and he'll see them clearly.

> By three months he will be seeing objects within a distance of 10 feet, indicating that he now has near and far vision. Return to Top >
Not only can your baby see clearly at birth, but he can fixate or maintain his gaze intently on an object.

At first, baby's fixation or attention span varies from 4 to 10 seconds. When interest wanes, he closes or shifts his gaze aimlessly.

The repeated sight of appropriate objects, however, will help increase your baby's attention span. Many parents have reported that their newborn's attention span increased from 10 seconds to 60 or 90 seconds after only one week of looking at black and white checkerboards for about 3 minutes a day.

Because of this, fixation helps learning. If your baby fixates on one object, information about that object gets through to the cortex the deepest part of the brain which means that there is an intact pathway for stimulating the brain's growth.
Source: Dr. Ludington-Hoe, S., "How to Have a Smarter Baby", Bantam Books, 1985, p. 74. Return to Top >
Babies are said to be "tracking" when they try to follow appealing objects with their eyes. The more appealing the object, the more intense and prolonged the tracking. In the first two months of life tracking is difficult, but not impossible. When you use high-contrast designs like black and white bull's-eyes that move slowly across your baby's visual field, he will be able to track with more ease because of his interest in the stimulator.

Tracking helps your baby to learn where an object is in space and how it differs from its background so that he can reach for it. He discovers that objects have permanence by seeing that they move, yet remain the same.
Source: Dr. Ludington-Hoe, S., "How to Have a Smarter Baby", Bantam Books, 1985, p. 74. Return to Top >
A child moves his eyes from one object to another in a series of little jumps. He is "scanning" his choices.

When your baby scans, he learns how to see and compare entire objects. This ability eventually helps him to distinguish all the objects in his environment.

It takes many babies a bit of time to realize there's something to look at. Try to leave the object you ant your baby to focus on within his view for at least 30 seconds long enough for his eyes to follow and come upon it.
Source: Dr. Ludington-Hoe, S., "How to Have a Smarter Baby", Bantam Books, 1985, p. 75. Return to Top >
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