Eye contact with babies is one of the first amazing milestones of life after birth.
This is an especially exciting milestone because when parents and babies lock eyes, it forms the beginning of your bonding and emotional connection with one another.
Research shows eye gaze actually syncs your brain waves with your baby’s, the first step in improving communication later in your child’s life as an adult.
Eye contact is also a very important step toward newborn brain development. We take a look at what that means.
Is eye contact important for babies?
The development of eye contact is important for two reasons, both for brain development and for emotional connection.
Your baby making eye contact with you is vital in early attachment and bonding. The special relationship you’re forming with your baby increases their sense of security and allows their brain to grow and develop on track. The more connected and attuned you are as a parent to your baby’s communication, the more you encourage their emotional development.
You might like to read Aware Parenting 101 with Lael Stone for more information.
When your baby sees your eyes and face, they start to make connections between expressions and feelings (e.g. a smile means happiness). They learn how to respond and develop the ability to engage and relate to others, to regulate their own feelings, and communicate.
As your baby develops further and can follow your gaze, they will start to exchange information with you. This increases their ability to play and communicate, developing their language and vocabulary skills. This is seen when babies point to an object and their caregiver names it for them.
When should babies make eye contact?
The development of eye contact with babies occurs over time but starts quite soon after birth.
- Within the first 7 hours, newborns can have an intense interest in their mothers’ face, even mimicking facial expressions
- Around 6 – 10 weeks your baby will begin to direct their eyes intentionally, looking directly at you and holding your gaze with eyes widening
- Usually around 3 months of age, your baby will follow your movements if you’re not too far away
- It’s expected between 9 to 11 months, babies have developed the ability to follow your eye gaze, showing they understand that eyes are meant for seeing and looking.
In the first few months of life, babies actually can’t see very well or long distances. This is why interacting with your baby when holding them close helps as they’re innately attuned to recognise the human face. You might also notice their interest is captured by very bright colours or objects that are contrasting black and white.
At around 3 to 4 months of age, babies are able to recognise different objects such as toys and have better colour perception. They’ll start to deliberately reach for objects they recognise like a toy, and smile deliberately at you when you make eye contact. This is called a social smile, and is them responding to another smile or trying to get that person to smile at them.
Is it normal for babies to not make eye contact?
Young babies won’t always make eye contact all of the time. Remember, this is a development milestone that happens over time and will be something that increases as your baby gets older.
Usually babies will start to make very deliberate eye contact to engage with their caregivers, whether that’s to play or feel secure or be social.
However, sometimes babies get tired and simply don’t want to look or focus on you any more. Some babies become overstimulated by eye contact and the neural messages their brain is receiving! They might refuse to have eye contact for some time afterwards, even for weeks. Over time you will learn your baby’s particular personality and know their cues for when they’re keen to have eye contact.
When should I worry about baby eye contact?
Speak to your healthcare provider or a paediatrician if you’re worried about your baby’s eye contact. Some babies have vision impairment from birth or develop it due to a medical condition, injury or disease. This can impact their ability to make eye contact and be a sign there’s something that needs looking into.
Your GP or paediatrician may refer your child to a children’s eye specialist (paediatric ophthalmologist). The ophthalmologist will do some tests to work out if there is a problem and how to treat it.
How can I help my baby make eye contact?
Eye contact with your baby is a special moment. Each baby develops at their own pace, so you could be wondering when your baby will start gazing into your eyes! You can encourage your little one to make eye contact, with these tips:
- Wait till baby is in a good mood, not hungry, tired or going through the witching hour! When you’re both calm and happy, eye contact is more likely to happen
- Hold baby close, especially when feeding. This encourages bonding and keep you in their focus range. Alternate sides as well, so your baby
- If your baby starts to make eye contact, take advantage and start talking, smiling or even singing. This encourages your baby to focus on you more and they will store these interactions and become integrated in future development
- Don’t look away before your baby does, hold their gaze for as long as they’re interested
- Once they look away, respect that might be it for the moment, as your baby could be tired or just had enough. Don’t force more eye contact
- Eye contact is enhanced by touch or sound, when it is gentle and calm, to enhance the experience and bond
- Newborns and young babies are still developing this skill so don’t expect them to hold long, intense eye contact.
- Let your baby follow and track objects as they get older, and name things for them to store the knowledge and build on their communication skills.
Bonding and attachment are a big part of your parenting transition. To enhance this journey, a postnatal doula can support you to have the space and time as you get to know your newborn. To find out how Nurtured Birth can surround you with support, please contact us.