Coming To Their Senses

New research reveals what your baby sees, hears and feels.

Moments before his wife was to give birth, basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson called a time-out."Hold it," he said. "We've got to start the music."His sister-in-law popped in the preselected Luther Vandross tape. "OK, honey, push him out!"Johnson wanted Vandross' smooth vocals to be the first thing his newborn son heard. Just seconds old, Earvin Johnson III might not know the difference between Vandross and Wagner, but research shows that he, like most babies, will prefer his music in tune.Among researchers, it's common knowledge that infants recognize their own mothers' speech patterns at birth. In fact, some research even suggests that the fetus can hear sound in the fifth month of pregnancy. Such finely tuned hearing is only one new research revelation of the heightened senses in newborns.Hearing Not only do babies prefer harmonic melodies, found Harvard University child psychologists Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., and Marcel Zenter, Ph.D., but babies also fuss and cry when listening to out-of-tune music."A baby's ears are remarkably sensitive to different sound qualities and intonation patterns," says Diane Phillips, M.S., C.C.C.A., a clinical audiologist at Hermann Hospital in Houston.Newborns seem to detect the difference between low- and high-pitched sounds—a male and female voice, for example. They also show preferences for certain patterns and pitches, Phillips says. This may be one reason why they respond to the singsong cadence most adults use when speaking to infants."Parents may feel silly talking to their newborns," says Diane Henderson, M.D., a developmental pediatrician in Los Angeles, "but by doing so they help to develop important language skills."TouchEven at birth, touch is probably the most developed of all the senses, says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School. Even something as simple as stimulating the inside of a baby's mouth with a pacifier encourages growth, she adds.Studies conducted by Field show that premature babies who are massaged regularly continue to gain weight at a greater rate than babies who are not massaged.A relaxing touch allows the body to work more efficiently, says Field. She encourages parents to massage their infants using slow, firm, relaxing strokes. Henderson says that touching your baby's hands can help prepare for eventual hand-eye coordination.

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.VisionOf 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."