Your child might seem small and helpless at birth, but babies are equipped to face the world with their five senses, which already start developing in the womb.
Soon after birth, babies are able to taste, smell, touch and hear to their maximum ability, says Dr Lauren Stretch. Stretch is a PE-based early childhood development specialist. “Sight is the only one of the five senses that takes time to develop fully. However, newborns can still see objects a few centimetres away.”
Adjusting to life
Because of the rapid rate at which these senses develop, it’s important to avoid overstimulation. Help your baby slowly adapt to life outside the womb. “In the first 12 weeks, babies are simply learning to regulate, to organise sensations received from their senses, and to control their head and arm movements,” explains Liz Senior. Senior is an occupational therapist and founder of Clamber Club.
“They’re also learning how to regulate their sleep cycles and even the way in which they cry. It’s important to respond to their cues and meet their emotional needs immediately. This will help them to self-regulate as they get older.
“A happy baby who’s not overstimulated can sustain longer periods in a content, quiet alert state. This is the optimal state of readiness to engage with the world through their senses,” says Senior.
From voices to household sounds, an unborn baby can already hear at 25 weeks gestation and will startle with loud noises, explains Cape Town-based paediatrician Dr Henriette Saunders. Three-month-old babies will turn towards sounds. By the time a baby reaches a year, they’ll listen to a noise behind them or across the room.
How to help
Your baby will love the sound of your voice, so sing and talk often, says Senior. “You can also use bells and musical toys to encourage them to turn their heads while they listen,” adds Stretch.
As your baby approaches six months, play hide-and-seek. Call out their name in a higher pitched voice from different areas in the house. This will teach them to locate sounds. Keep an eye on how your baby responds to sounds and book a hearing test if you’re concerned about anything.
Babies have a sophisticated sense of taste. The tongue and taste buds are formed at just nine weeks gestation, says Saunders. They’re also exposed to a variety of different flavours in the womb, which are transmitted from a mother’s diet through the amniotic fluid. Babies are born with around 10 000 taste buds, which is why it’s easy for them to differentiate between salty, sweet, bitter and sour flavours, says Saunders.
How to help
Evidence shows that 90% of babies’ sensory organs are in their mouths, which is why everything goes into the mouth, specifically in the first year. After six months, help your baby explore the world by giving them a variety of flavours to taste, as well as different toys and textures, which are safe to explore with their mouth.
Babies are born with an advanced sense of smell and are already attuned to their mother’s unique scent, which they’ll be able to distinguish over other women. They’re also attracted to the smell of their mother’s breast milk.
How to help
Babies don’t like strong odours, so avoid wearing perfume or deodorant in the first few months, especially around feeding time. Use your baby’s sense of smell to help soothe him. For instance, place an item of your clothing in his crib or give him a bath or massage with a few drops of lavender oil before bedtime.
An unborn baby can see faint light transmitted through their mother’s skin and uterus. At birth, babies can only see in black and white. Their eyesight is limited to objects such as their mother’s face within a 20cm to 30cm radius. The good news is that a baby’s sight keeps on developing at a rapid rate, says Saunders. “Their eye movements may not be well coordinated at first, but by four months, a baby can see more colours with less contrast. They also begin to use their eyes to coordinate their hand movements, which makes grabbing objects easier,” she adds.
How to help
Enhance your baby’s eye control by using your face as the focal point, and then move from side to side, backwards and forwards, while maintaining eye contact, explains Stretch. Your baby will use his eye muscles to keep focus on your face. You can also use items of clothing, toys or trees and flowers on a nature walk as focal points. “However, only show your baby one item at a time. Baby won’t be able to focus on too many objects at once,” she warns.
A baby’s sense of touch is pretty advanced at birth, as a caregiver’s touch not only soothes and relaxes a newborn, it also enhances their growth and development.
How to help
“Young babies love to be cuddled, massaged and swaddled. This replicates the comfort of the womb and helps them feel safe and secure,” says Saunders. To enhance their sense of touch, expose your baby to a variety of different textures from a young age. “Do this by supporting your baby in a sitting position while on your lap or lying on his tummy. Place a textured toy in your baby’s hands or a few within his reach, and encourage him to feel and play with the toys,” advises My Smart Kid’s occupational therapist, Susan Hugo.
Find tummy time tips here
The sound of music
Joburg-based vocal trainer and mom of two, Simone Venter, talks about how simply singing around the house enhanced her children’s hearing, sight and speech. “From when my son and daughter were babies, I’d always sing to them during our daily activities, such as getting dressed, eating or having a bath. I’d even sing my words at times, as joining words into a stream of sound helps to broaden vowel sounds and children often hear words better this way. Plus, I’d focus on having fun with them – using my hands and facial expressions while singing and talking to them. This helped them to see and hear what I was saying, which resulted in them becoming a lot more expressive and responsive. Now at the ages of two and four, they both have a wide vocabulary and speak clearly, rather than mumbling. I truly believe that singing has taught them to be more confident and pronounce their words better.”
Top toys for tummy time
- A baby mirror
- A sensory ball (made of different colours and textured materials)
- A rattle with a comfortable grip
- Soft or rubber toys that make a noise, which babies will be able to pick up and hold on their own
Top toy tips supplied by My Smart Kid