coming to their senses
New research reveals what your baby sees, hears and feels.
Taste and smell
Ever wonder if your infant might develop a taste for jambalaya or enchiladas? It may depend on whether or not you eat them while breastfeeding.
Studies at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a Philadelphia research institute specializing in taste and smell, found that infants may cultivate their palates through the flavors and odors present in mother’s milk. Infants are born with a natural sweet tooth, says Julie Mennella, Ph.D., biopsychologist and associate member at Monell, but will respond differently when the smell or naturally sweet taste of breast milk has changed.
Measuring intake and following their facial expressions, scientists have also learned that babies have definite dislikes for sour and bitter tastes.
Since taste and smell go hand in hand, babies exhibit a preference for their mothers’ scents. Mennella says studies show babies cry less when exposed to their mothers’ odors and have an easier time “latching on” to nurse when the mother’s breast has not been scrubbed clean of her scent.
Of all the senses, vision is probably the least developed at birth. Fortunately, nature has seen to it that an infant’s focus does extend from the crook of a parent’s arm to his or her face—about 14 inches—the perfect position for feeding.
During the first 12 months of life, vision will vary among babies, says Catherine West, O.D., a pediatric developmental optometrist based in Houston. A child’s vision won’t reach its 20/20 potential until about 3 or 4 years of age.
Choosing bright, high-contrast toys and mobiles can help to develop a baby’s vision, says West, but choose wisely. The bottoms of many mobiles—which the baby actually ends up seeing—are often plain or just white, which does nothing for visual development. “Babies should have stimulating objects to look at,” she adds, “but they should be at least as big as your hand.”
Parents may worry about the tendency of a baby’s eyes to cross when attempting to focus, yet this is normal until 3 months of age. However, West says, by 6 months the eyes should be working well in tandem.
Most important to developing an infant’s vision is making eye contact. Studies show that babies who don’t have eye contact fail to thrive, she says.
While stirring a baby’s senses helps him to reach his developmental potential, pediatrician Henderson cautions parents who become overzealous in their attempts. “Do not bombard too many senses at one time,” she says. “Parents need to learn their baby’s cues and signals. If the baby’s had enough, he may cry, avert his eyes or become fussy. He learns to shut down.”