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Developmental Milestones of the Visual System

Babies learn to see over a period of time, much like they learn to walk and talk. They are not born with all the visual abilities they need in life. The ability to focus their eyes, move them accurately, and use them together as a team must be learned. Also, they need to learn how to use the visual information the eyes send to their brain in order to understand the world around them and interact with it appropriately.

Healthy eyes and good vision play a critical role in how infants and children learn to see. Eye and vision problems in infants can cause developmental delays so it’s important to detect any problems early to ensure babies have the opportunity to develop the visual abilities they need to grow and learn.

Parents play an important role in ensuring their child’s eyes and vision develop properly. This includes:

  • Watching for signs of eye and vision problems.
  • Seeking professional eye care starting with the first comprehensive vision assessment at about 6 months of age.
  • Helping their child develop his or her vision by engaging in age-appropriate activities.

Birth to 4 Months: At birth, babies’ vision is abuzz with all kinds of visual stimulation. While they may look intently at a highly contrasted target, babies have not yet developed the ability to easily tell the difference between two targets or move their eyes between two images. Their primary focus is on objects eight to 10 inches from their face, which is roughly the distance to their parent’s face while being held. Also at birth, your baby only sees in black and white because nerve cells in the retina and brain are not fully developed. Your baby’s eyes are not very sensitive to light in the first month of life. In fact, the amount of light required for a 1-month-old infant to be aware it (called the light detection threshold) is 50 times higher than that of an adult.

  • One thing you may notice about your newborn is their large eye size. This is because normal infant development proceeds from the head down. At birth, your baby’s eyes are already 65 percent of their adult size!
  • For the first two months of life, an infant’s eyes are not well coordinated and may appear to wander or to be crossed. This is usually normal. However, if an eye appears to turn in or out constantly, an evaluation is warranted.
  • The eyes and the neck are the first body parts that an infant learns to control. As the baby scans their surroundings, the brain is working to process and integrate all the sensations from the eyes and neck muscles. The baby starts training their body to keep the head and eyes stable, which is an important skill used for reading. The eyes must keep the image stable and the muscles in the neck need to hold the head still (used for posture in school) to avoid images becoming blurry. This building block is vital for future learning objectives such as reading, writing, and taking notes from the whiteboard. Overall body movement and balance begin here.

Tips: To help stimulate your infant’s vision, decorate their room with bright, cheerful colors. Include artwork and furnishings with contrasting colors and shapes. Also hang a brightly colored mobile above or near their crib. Make sure it has a variety of colors and shapes. Talk to your baby as you walk around the room. Keep a nightlight on to provide visual stimulation when they are awake in their crib.

5 to 8 Months: During these months, control of eye movements and eye-body coordination skills continue to improve. The baby loves to be rocked, swung up in the air, and moved around. This movement stimulates the senses, including vision, and provides experiences that help the brain develop and integrate sensory information.

  • Depth perception, which is the ability to judge if objects are nearer or farther away than other objects, is not present at birth. It is not until around the fifth month that the eyes are capable of working together to form a three-dimensional view of the world and begin to see in depth.
  • Although an infant’s color vision is not as sensitive as an adult’s, it is generally believed that babies have good color vision by 5 months of age. Also, visual acuity improves from about 20/400 at birth to approximately 20/25 at 6 months of age.
  • Most babies start crawling at about 8 months old, which helps further develop eye-hand-foot-body coordination.

9 to 12 Months: This is an important developmental period for your child. At this stage, infants are developing a better awareness of their overall body and are learning how to coordinate their vision with their body movements.

  • At around 9 months of age, babies begin to pull themselves up to a standing position. By 10 months, a baby should be able to grasp objects with thumb and forefinger.
  • By 12 months of age, most babies will be crawling and trying to walk. Parents should encourage crawling rather than early walking to help the child develop better eye-hand coordination. Early walkers who did minimal crawling may not learn to use their eyes together as well as babies who crawl a lot.
  • Babies can now judge distances fairly well and throw things with precision.

Tips: To stimulate the development of your child’s eye-hand-body coordination, get down on the floor and encourage them to crawl to objects. Place a favorite toy on the floor just out of their reach and encourage them to get it. Also, provide plenty of objects and toys that they can take apart and put together.

All of our developing senses heavily rely on each other to serve the body as a whole. In the book, Attention, Balance and Coordination, Sally Goddard describes the following about a child’s vision milestones, “Nothing that is seen is understood by the sense of vision alone. In other words, what we experience through vision as adults is actually the product of years of multisensory experience – a compound sense – which has developed as result of sight combined with moving, touching, and proprioceptive feedback from the muscles, tendons and joints of the body in response to movement of the body through space.”

Signs of Eye and Vision Problems

Excessive Tearing may indicate blocked tear ducts.

Red or Encrusted Eye Lids could be a sign of an eye infection.

Constant Eye Turning may signal a problem with eye muscle control.

Extreme Sensitivity to Light may indicate an elevated pressure in the eye.

Appearance of a White Pupil may indicate the presence of an eye cancer.

If you suspect your child is showing sign of eye or vision development problems, call us today to set up an appointment!


American Optometric Association, “Infant Vision: Birth to 24 Months of Age”,, Accessed Sept 2016.

Heiting, Gary OD. “Your Infant’s Vision Development”,, May 2016, Accessed Sept 2016.

Integrated Learning Strategies. “Vision Milestones: Warning Signs if Your Child isn’t Meeting their Visual Milestones for Reading”,, June 2016, Accessed Sept 2016.