Developmental Disabilities

Vision/Hearing » Vision


Normal Visual Development

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By Irene Topor, M.Ed.

1990 by Communication Skill Builders, Inc.

Vision is one of your baby’s most important ways to learn about the world. The first three years of life is a critical time for your baby to be visually alert and learning about objects, people, and events.

Your baby sees some things from the moment of birth, because much of the visual system has already developed. Vision develops in a predictable way; here’s what happens before and after birth. The ages are averages; every baby is a little different.

Before birth

  • 16 weeks fetal age: Eye movements occur
  • 25 weeks fetal age: The light-sensitive cells in the eye can be seen.
  • 28 weeks fetal age: The muscles that control the pupils have developed.
  • 32 weeks fetal age: The cornea – covering the lens – appears.  The optic nerves – the visual pathways that connect the eyes and the brain – are in place.

Your baby is able to visually learn about the world, but the visual systems are not fully developed. Here are some of the changes that should occur in your baby’s visual behavior during the first three years.

At birth

  • The cornea becomes fully transparent.
  • Can tell colors apart, but the ability is not mature for all colors until 2 to 3 months.
  • Until about 3 months, sees things to the side better than to the front.

Your baby’s ability to notice details and differences quickly increases, but attention to different nearby areas may be limited. The ability to shift attention rapidly increases during the first 2 months.

3 months

  • The shape of the cornea makes close objects a little out of focus. Sees best at a distance of eight to ten inches.
  • The way the pupil reacts to light continues to develop.
  • Begins to recognize your face. At first baby scans the angles, shapes, and outlines of the face. By 3 months, scans the eyes and mouth, unless there is an unusual feature – such as glasses, glitter, or paint – added to the face.

4 months

  • Sees detail and color. Probably knows your face from a stranger’s and prefers yours.
  • Can accommodate – shift focus from one distance to another – from eight to thirty inches away and converge –turn the yes inward – with good precision to look at a target at close range.
  • Binocular vision – the ability to focus both eyes on one object and see one image – is fairly well developed and is closely linked to accommodation and convergence. Should respond to horizontal and vertical lines, and back-and-white checkerboard and bull’s eye patterns.

6 months

  • Watches everything that is nearby.
  • At a slightly earlier age, baby gazed at hands, batted and swiped at hanging objects, and tried to grasp objects. Now baby stretches both arms out to grasp an interesting-looking object or to touch your face. This shows that some depth perception – the ability to see the three-dimensional relationship between objects – is developing.
  • Reaching skills continue to develop until 12 months. Baby watches the activities of others, looks at pictures in books, and dumps and fills containers.

12 to 18 months

  • Practices visual-motor skills: Scribbles, builds a tower with cubes, attempts to imitate strokes, places a circle in a one-piece puzzle and pegs into a pegboard.
  • Is interested in simple picture books and in touching bold colors.

2 years

  • Sees detail in pictures.
  • Works on matching things that are the same and different.
  • Matches objects to pictures.
  • Recognizes detail in pictures.
  • Becomes aware of upside down and right side up.
  • Continues to draw and place square and triangle shapes in puzzles.

3 years

  • Matches and sorts by color and shape.
  • Matches objects to pictures that are not identical.
  • May be able to sort pictures of common objects and draw a person with a head and one or two other features.

Many of these “visual behaviors” involve the use of eyes and hands together. During the first three years, eye and hand development cannot be separated.

How can I help?

Here are some things you can do to help your baby learn to use eyes and hands together.

From birth to 8 weeks, help your baby practice focusing by keeping your face or another interesting object eight to ten inches away. Later, hang a small textured ball about ten inches above the baby’s face. Your baby will practice reaching out to swipe over and over again.

By 6 months, use cradle gyms and other objects to encourage your baby to reach out and grasp. The more your baby looks at, swipes at, bats, reaches for – and grasps – toys, the better the chances are that eye/hand skills will be strong in later years. This will help in building towers with blocks, putting together puzzles, drawing, and other activities.


Every person is unique, but vision develops in a predictable sequence. The eye develops physically before birth; after birth, vision continues to develop. Your child will learn to use both eyes together and to distinguish lines, shapes, and objects. Soon your child will begin to touch and grasp everything in sight.

Hand and eye development are closely linked during the first three years. By the toys you give and the kind of play you encourage, you can help your child’s vision develop normally.

In 1989, Dr. Turben received funding that enabled the Cleveland Sight Center to initiate the first large-scale, family-centered Children's Services Program in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Turben worked for Lake County Early Intervention Collaborative Group in 1988-89 as the consultant who prepared the County Needs Assessment and assisted the collaborative in the preparation of the 1988-89 Lake County Early Intervention Collaborative Plan, which launched family collaboratives as a network of families with children who had disabilities.
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