Your baby’s senses

What your baby's senses are like as a newborn, and how to help your baby’s sense of smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing develop from birth

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From birth, your baby can use all his sense. Here’s how you can help him develop his smell, touch, hearing, sight and taste and to explore his new world…

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Smell

“Your baby’s sense of smell is incredibly well formed at birth,” says Karen Sullivan, childcare expert and co-author of Your Child Year by Year (Dorling Kindersley).

“He’ll be familiar with your smell, and the smell of your milk if you’re breastfeeding.”

To help your baby develop his sense of smell and feel comfortable, put the same toy or blanket in his bed each night. As he becomes accustomed to its scent, you can use it to soothe him when he’s distressed.

“Also, if your baby won’t settle, try putting an article of your clothing near his cot, so he has your smell nearby,” says Karen.

Touch

Your baby’s sense of touch is fully developed at birth.

“There’s some evidence that a baby’s sense of touch develops at only eight weeks’ gestation, long before he has eyes or ears,” says Karen Sullivan, childcare expert and author. “When you’re about 10 weeks pregnant, he’ll reach out and touch the lining of the womb. The womb is a baby’s first ‘school’.

When your baby’s born, he thrives on being cuddled.

“Scientific studies have shown that babies who are held and touched, often during very young infancy, tend to have stronger immunity, cry less often, gain weight faster and develop more quickly,” says Karen.

“Your baby’s brain grows and develops through touch: babies who aren’t touched as infants have even been shown to have brains that are significantly smaller than those who are regularly touched,” Karen says.

Hearing

Your baby can hear sounds while still in the womb.

“By 18 weeks his hearing has begun to develop and he’ll hear your heartbeat and the rush of blood in your veins,” says Karen Sullivan, childcare expert and co-author of Your Child Year by Year (Dorling Kindersley).

By the time he’s born his sense of hearing is well developed, though it becomes sharper over the first year of life.

Talking and singing to your baby from the start will stimulate his development and help his speech. Your baby may begin to babble as early as seven or eight weeks, and can hold a ‘conversation’ with pauses soon after. Use a lively voice when chatting to him, and tell him what you’re doing so his vocabulary develops.

To help develop your baby’s hearing skills, put your baby in his bouncy chair, facing towards one end of the room. When he stops paying attention to you, slip to a place in the room behind him and make a sound. He’ll look round to find you.

Parents of deaf babies have long made use of their baby’s vision by using sign language to communicate. This is increasingly being used for hearing babies, too.

Sight

For the first weeks of his life, your baby’s vision is blurred. By around two weeks he will recognise you, and will start to smile back from around six weeks. His sight continues to develop in the first six months of his life.

“Initially your baby will focus best on things about 20-25cm from his face. It’s no coincidence that this is the distance between a mum’s breast and her face: babies look at their mum’s faces as they feed, and bond during the process,” says Karen Sullivan, childcare expert and author.

Because his sight takes a while to develop, he’ll respond best to strong colour contrasts, such as black and white or bright colours.

Your baby is especially fond of faces – both real and in pictures – as they’re the first things they see. He particularly loves babies’ faces, possibly because the features are exaggerated, with big eyes.

Taste

Your baby will get his first taste of food while still in the womb, when he swallows amniotic fluid. The taste of the amniotic fluid varies according to what you’ve eaten.

“After birth, breastfed babies continue to get a variety of flavours from your breast milk, which takes on the taste of whatever you’re eating,” says Karen.

The best approach is for breastfeeding mums to eat a wide variety of different, healthy foods. “Research suggests that breastfed babies are less likely to be faddy eaters, as a result of the variety of tastes they experience.”

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Watch your baby’s face closely when he feeds and you’ll see he’s likely to make different facial expressions according to what he can taste – whether it’s a sweet, sour or bitter taste in your milk. Scientists even found that babies make the same kind of expressions as adults – a smile for sweet and a grimace for sour.

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