Vision Development Begins in Infancy: How can I help?

Birth to Three Article:  Carol E. Marusich, OD, MS, FCOVD

Vision develops in the same step-by-step manner in which babies learn all of their basic skills.  As vision develops, they must learn to get meaning from what they see in order to recognize and understand what they are looking at, where it is located and how it is going to feel, sound, taste or smell.

The following suggestions demonstrate how we can provide experiences and an environment which encourage proper vision development.

From birth, the infant is attracted to bright patterns of light and dark.  She learns to grasp these targets with her eyes and hold on to them visually as they move around her.  To encourage this early vision development:

  • Keep the nursery dimly lit so she will have something to look at upon awakening.  Provide slowly moving, brightly colored mobiles.
  • Talk to her from different places in the room so she can watch and follow, associating distances and directions both in sight and hearing.
  • Change and feed her from alternate sides.  Vary her position in the crib and room.  This provides equal visual experiences for each eye.
  • Have her spend as much time as possible on her tummy to build strength in arms, legs, and neck muscles.  Good head and body control will aid in the development of early visual tracking skills.

The earliest form of hand-eye coordination starts when your baby begins to be aware of his own hands.  This sets the stage for the exploration of objects within his reach.  To enhance this development:

  • Help him move his hands before his face so he can see these movements.  Help him shake a light-weight rattle so he can feel, see, and hear it.
  • Play “peek” by holding his hands before his eyes so he can learn the difference between having his eyes closed and his view blocked.

At about 16 weeks of age, your baby discovers that she has two hands which she can “see in one look” as they move together, apart, closer, and further away.  At this stage, it is time to:

  • Play “patty-cake” and learn the many directions of movements which hands and eyes can take.
  • Provide blocks she can hold in her hands and put together so they bang as she watches them.
  • Provide objects she can safely take into her hand and put to her mouth.  This provides practice for feeding herself and is the eye-hand control necessary for use of her own spoon.
  • Move the mobile close enough so she can make it swing and bounce.
  • Tie bells on her booties and help her learn to see her feet by hearing them, too.  (As a safety precaution, remove the bells after this activity and store them out of reach of your child)

At about six or seven months, your baby needs to have even more time on the floor.  His movements will teach him to bring his entire muscular system into action.  Provide opportunities to reach, touch, and feel as many things as he can see.

  • Vary the toys and objects to provide him with different textures and surfaces to explore.
  • Have other children play in the same room with him when possible.  All babies start to imitate others just as fast as their   development allows.  As your baby sees other children at play, he will use these visual cues to go into movement.

Your growing child reaches a stage where she needs to verify her knowledge of the objects she sees by feeling and manipulating them.  While dangerous objects should be placed out of her reach, many things could be made available to her.

  • Place objects on the high chair tray that can safely be pushed off or thrown to the floor.  While learning that there is a “down”, this game also teaches her to release objects from her hands which is just as important as knowing how to hold objects in her hands.  Use all the visual words that describe the action she sees such as “there it goes”, “all gone”, and “here it is”.
  • Talk with her about each experience to help her associate word sounds with what she sees and feels.
  • Arrange a “pot and pan” cupboard which she can reach and open herself.  Put tissue paper, clean rags, and nesting tupperware with the pans.  All these objects provide visual experiences which help her learn about tops and bottoms, insides and outsides, smooth and rough, soft and hard, big and little, light and heavy, and many other visual aspects of the things her world contains.

By the time your child is one year old, he needs to crawl, wiggle, roll, and creep.

  • Allow him to get stuck under a desk or coffee table.  He needs to get into and out of tight places and learn how to do these things himself.  When he gets stuck, show  him  how to back up or turn around so he can solve the problem next time. This helps him understand space, how big he is, and how he fits into his environment.
  • Provide experiences on stairs and steps.  Stairs help him learn to see that up is different from down and that steps are different from floors.  Protect him from severe falls, but remember that little bumps help him learn how to avoid big ones.
  • Do not be in too big a hurry to help him walk.  Creeping on all fours provides the best opportunity for him to learn to coordinate upper and lower body movements as well as cross body patterns.  This is when he is learning to integrate his right and left sides.  Spend time encouraging him to creep since this will enable him to develop good bilateral (two-sided) abilities.

With all the new motor skills learned during her first year, your child is now ready to enjoy the visual motor challenges of building blocks and toys she can push, pull, and ride.

  • Popping bubbles, bopping a balloon or rolling a ball involves visual tracking, visual motor planning, and provides a safe, fun way to explore cause and effect.
  • Exploring with finger paints or washable markers and big sheets of paper provide experiences of moving her hands across sheets of paper, a skill she’ll need lots of practice with to be ready for coloring and writing.

Throughout the toddler and preschool years, our children are learning the visual skills they will need in school, work, and play.

  • Make pencils, markers, and crayons available for him to practice the underlying fine motor coordination necessary for writing.
  • Provide experiences with hammering, stringing beads, snap together toys, beanbag and tossing games to help him learn spatial judgments and visual motor coordination.
  • Help him sort shapes/sizes and play with puzzles to encourage development of form perception and visual discrimination skills.
  • Ask him to find the objects in the pictures as you read books together.
  • Ask what he sees on outings and later ask him to remember and tell you what he saw.

As adults, our vision gives us information at a glance about how things will sound, taste, and feel. Our babies have a lot to learn!  All of these activities suggest ways we can share and encourage their normal vision development.