It can be an amazing experience to watch your baby take in the world for the first time through their five senses. As you watch this unfold, you probably have a lot of questions about how your baby’s five senses work, develop, and evolve.
These questions are fascinating and will help you better understand the inner workings of your little one better. So, let’s take a deep dive into each of your baby’s five senses, including smell, touch, taste, sight, and hearing.
Your Baby’s Five Senses: Smell, Touch, Taste, Sight, Hearing
Your baby’s sense of smell is one of the first senses to develop in the womb. The olfactory (smell) receptors begin to develop as early as 8 weeks gestation and become fully functional at about 24 weeks. This means that your baby is born with a completely developed sense of smell!
After birth, your baby’s sense of smell helps them locate their food, such as breast milk or formula, says Samantha N. Goldman, OTD, OTR/L, an occupational therapist. “Many mommies can remember that initial ‘crawl,’ where the baby is able to locate the breast to feed right after birth,” Dr. Goldman describes. “Even immediately after birth, infants are able to recognize and be calmed by their mother’s scent, because they were already exposed to it in utero.”
Although this can sometimes make handing your baby off to an unfamiliar person difficult, you can harness the power of smell to help your baby feel more at ease in new situations. For example, many babies will feel more comfortable if they are wrapped in a blanket that smells like their parent, even when their parent can’t be physically present, Dr. Ganjian suggests.
The sense of touch begins to develop early in gestation, as soon as 8 weeks. Your baby’s sense of touch helps them connect with their caregivers and offers feelings of warmth and security, says Fadiyla Dopwell, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Pediatrix Developmental Medicine of Dallas. This is why parents of newborns are encouraged to practice skin-to-skin with their babies, and this is particularly important for premature babies, says Dr. Dopwell.
Although your baby’s sense of touch is fully developed at birth, it continues to evolve as your baby grows, says Dr. Goldman. “Babies do not initially know what all textures and objects feel like—this is learned through experience,” Dr. Goldman notes. “Touch’s primary purpose is to protect us; however, babies also use this sense to bond with their parents, learn how to play, move, and eat.”
As an example, Dr. Goldman mentions your baby’s grasping reflex, one of several instinctive reflexes that are present at birth. This reflex might cause your baby to close their hand around a caregiver’s finger. This may be a pleasant tactile experience for your newborn, causing them to do this again and again until they grasp the finger on their own, explains Dr. Goldman.
Like smell, your baby’s sense of taste is one of the most primitive and essential senses. “Taste buds develop as early as 8 weeks gestation, which means the sense of taste develops within the first trimester,” says Dr. Dopwell. “It is one of the most acute senses developed at birth.” Your baby’s taste buds are fully functional at about 17 weeks gestation.
Even in the womb, your baby is using their sense of taste, as they begin swallowing and tasting amniotic fluid. After birth, your baby has a taste preference toward sweet or savory flavors, which makes them privy to the taste of breast milk. Your baby’s sense of taste is refined by the flavors they taste through breast milk or formula; research shows that breastfed babies tend to favor the foods with flavors they were exposed to while breastfeeding.
Sight is one of the last senses to develop and isn’t fully mature at birth. Your baby’s vision starts to develop in the first trimester, at about 7 to 9 weeks gestation. “By about 27 weeks gestation, your child can open their eyes,” says Dr. Dopwell. “By 31 to 32 weeks gestation, a fetus responds to bright light.” But your baby’s vision is still fuzzy at birth and babies can only see about a ruler’s length ahead of them, she adds.
Although your baby’s sense of sight isn’t completely clear at birth, it quickly starts to be refined as time goes on, says Dr. Ganjian. At first, babies only see people when they are very close up and don’t see color. But as the month progresses, babies can see objects that are farther away, and begin to see colors, Dr. Ganjian explains.
You can keep your baby engaged in those early months by holding them a few inches away from your face and looking into their eyes. You’ll see their eyes start to focus and stare at you intently, and you might begin to get a few smiles out of your wee one.
The hearing starts to develop as early as 16 weeks gestation and becomes more fine-tuned during pregnancy and infancy. “Like the other systems, the auditory system continues to develop after birth and helps an infant explore the world,” says Dr. Dopwell.
Your baby starts to hear your voice in the womb, and then is able to recognize you after birth, says Dr. Dopwell. This aids in their ability to form secure attachments with their primary caregivers. As the months go on, their sense of hearing helps with language development, Dr. Dopwell explains.
Your baby will be given a hearing test soon after birth, but you should continue to monitor your baby’s hearing as time goes on, because issues with hearing can cause language and learning deficits. Signs that your baby may be hard-of-hearing or deaf include not reacting to loud sounds, not turning their head to a sound source by 6 months of age, and not attempting to make words like “mama” or “dada” by 12 months.