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Your Baby's Development

Your newborn may seem to do little more than eat, sleep, cry, pee, and poop. But if you notice how your baby reacts to things like light, noise, and touch, you will see the senses hard at work.

What Can My Baby See?

Your baby sees things best from 8 to 12 inches away. This is the perfect distance for gazing up into the eyes of mom or dad (a favorite thing to do!). Any farther than that, and newborns see mostly blurry shapes because they're nearsighted. At birth, a newborn's eyesight is between 20/200 and 20/400.

Their eyes are sensitive to bright light, so they're more likely to open their eyes in low light. Don't worry if your baby's eyes sometimes cross or drift outward (go "wall-eyed"). This is normal until your baby's vision improves and eye muscles strengthen.

Give your baby lots of appealing things to look at. After human faces, bright colors, contrasting patterns, and movement are the things newborns like to look at most. Black-and-white pictures or toys will keep your baby's interest longer than objects or pictures with lots of similar colors.

When quiet and alert, your baby should be able to follow the slow movement of your face or an object.

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What Can My Baby Hear?

Your newborn has been hearing sounds since way back in the womb. Mother's heartbeat, the gurgles of her digestive system, and even the sounds of her voice and the voices of other family members are part of a baby's world before birth.

Once your baby is born, the sounds of the outside world come in loud and clear. Your baby may startle at the unexpected bark of a dog nearby or seem soothed by the gentle whirring of the clothes dryer or the hum of the vacuum cleaner.

Notice how your newborn responds to your voice. Human voices, especially mom's and dad's, are a baby's favorite "music." Your baby already knows that this is where food, warmth, and touch come from. If your baby is crying in the bassinet, see how quickly your approaching voice quiets him or her down. See how closely your baby listens when you are talking or singing in loving tones.

Most newborns have a hearing screening before being released from the hospital (most states require this). If your baby didn't have it, or was born at home or a birthing center, it's important to have a hearing screening within the first month of life. Most babies born with a hearing loss can be diagnosed through a hearing screening.

Can My Baby Taste or Smell?

Newborns can taste and smell and will favor sweet tastes over bitter ones. For example, a newborn will choose to suck on a bottle of sweetened water, but will turn away or cry if given something bitter or sour to taste. Likewise, newborns will turn toward smells they favor and turn away from bad odors.

Though sweetness is preferred, taste preferences will continue to develop during the first year of life. In fact, studies show that a mother's diet can affect the way her breast milk tastes. These first flavors can help shape flavor preferences later on. For example, a mother who ate spicy foods while nursing is likely to have a child who grows up to favor spicy foods.

For now, breast milk or formula will fully satisfy your baby.

Why Is Touch Important?

Touch is very important to a newborn. With each touch, your newborn is learning about life and its surroundings.

While in the womb, babies are kept warm and protected, but after birth they are faced with feeling cold for the first time, brushing up against the hardness of the crib, or feeling the stiff edge of a seam inside clothes. Be sure that your newborn finds the world a soothing place to be by providing lots of soft clothes and blankets, tender kisses, comforting hugs, and loving caresses.

If You're Worried

If you want a little reassurance that your baby's senses are working well, you can do some unscientific testing for yourself.

When quiet and alert without other distractions, will your baby look at your face or a toy? If your baby's eyes seem to cross more than just briefly, be sure to tell your doctor. Also tell the doctor if your baby's eyes appear cloudy or filmy, or if you notice unusual eye movements.

Most newborns will startle if surprised by a loud noise nearby. Other ways to rest assured your baby is hearing well: Does your baby calm down when he or she hears your voice? Does your baby turn to the sound of a rattle? Does your baby react to soft lullabies or other music?

Even if your child passed the newborn hearing screen, talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your baby's hearing. The sooner a potential problem is caught, the better it can be treated.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: December 2017

About Growth Charts

Look at any class picture, and you'll see kids of the same age in all shapes and sizes. Some kids look tiny next to their peers, while others literally stand head and shoulders above their classmates.

As easy as it is to make these comparisons and to draw conclusions about what you see, the reality is that kids grow at their own pace. Big, small, tall, short — there is a wide range of healthy shapes and sizes among children.

Genetics, gender, nutrition, physical activity, health problems, environment, hormones, and lifestyle factors like nutrition and physical activity all influence a child's height and weight. And many of these factors can vary widely from family to family.

So how does a doctor figure out whether a child's height and weight measurements are "normal"? Whether he or she is developing on track? Whether any health problems are affecting growth?

A doctor uses growth charts to help answer those questions. Here are some facts about growth charts and what they say about a child's health.

Why Do Doctors Use Growth Charts?

Growth charts are a standard part of any checkup, and they show health care providers how kids are growing compared with other kids of the same age and gender. They also allow doctors and nurses to see the pattern of kids' height and weight gain over time, and whether they're developing proportionately.

Let's say a child was growing along the same pattern until he was 2 years old, then suddenly started growing at a much slower rate than other kids. That might indicate a health problem. Doctors could see that by looking at a growth chart.

Does a Different Pattern Indicate a Problem?

Not necessarily. The doctor will interpret the growth charts in the context of the child's overall well-being, environment, and genetic background. Is the child meeting other developmental milestones? Are there other signs that a child is not healthy? How tall or heavy are the child's parents and siblings? Was the child born prematurely? Has the child started puberty earlier or later than average? These are all factors that the doctor will use to help understand the numbers on the growth chart.

Are All Kids Measured on One Growth Chart?

No. Girls and boys are measured on different growth charts because they grow in different patterns and at different rates.

And one set of charts is used for babies, from birth to 36 months. Another set of charts is used for kids ages 2 to 20 years old. Also, special growth charts are used for children with certain conditions, such as Down syndrome.

Commonly used standard growth charts include:

Ages birth to 36 months (3 years):
Boys' length- and weight-for-age
Girls' length- and weight-for-age
Girls' head circumference-for-age and weight-for-length
Boys' head circumference-for-age and weight-for-length

Ages 2 to 20 years:
Girls' stature- and weight-for-age
Boys' stature- and weight-for-age
Girls ' weight-for-stature (height)
Boys' weight-for-stature (height)

What Measurements Are Put on the Charts?

Up until the time babies are 36 months old, doctors measure weight, length, and head circumference.

With older kids, doctors measure weight, height, and body mass index (BMI). It's important to look at and compare weight and height measurements to get a full picture of a child's growth.

Why Is Head Circumference Measured?

In babies, head circumference (the distance around the largest part of the head) can provide clues about brain development. If a baby's head is bigger or smaller than most other kids' or the head circumference stops increasing or increases quickly, it may indicate a problem.

For example, an unusually large head may be a sign of hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid inside the brain. A head that's smaller than average may be a sign that the brain is not developing properly or has stopped growing.

What Are Percentiles?

Percentiles are measurements that show where a child is compared with others. On the growth charts, the percentiles are shown as lines drawn in curved patterns.

When doctors plot a child's weight and height on the chart, they see which percentile line those measurements land on. The higher the percentile number, the bigger a child is compared with other kids of the same age and gender, whether it's for height or weight; the lower the percentile number, the smaller the child is. For example, if a 4-year-old boy's weight is in the 10th percentile, that means that 10% of boys that age weigh less than he does and 90% of 4-year-old boys weigh more.

How Are Percentiles Determined?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created the growth charts that are most commonly used in the United States. They were last updated in 2000. After collecting growth measurements from thousands of U.S. children over a period of time, the CDC was able to show the range of these measurements on one chart, using percentile curves.

Being in a high or a low percentile does not necessarily mean that a child is healthier or has a growth or weight problem. Let's say that 4-year-old boy, who is in the 10th percentile for weight, is also in the 10th percentile for height. So 10% of kids are shorter and weigh less than he does, and most kids — 90% — are taller and weigh more. That just means that he's smaller than average, which usually doesn't mean there is a problem. If his parents and siblings are also smaller than average, and there are other signs that he's healthy and developing well, doctors would likely conclude that there's no cause for concern.

What's the Ideal Percentile for My Child?

There is no one ideal number. Healthy children come in all shapes and sizes, and a baby who is in the 5th percentile can be just as healthy as a baby who is in the 95th percentile.

Ideally, each child will follow along the same growth pattern over time, growing in height and gaining weight at the same rate, with the height and weight in proportion to one another. This means that usually a child stays on a certain percentile line on the growth curve. So if our 4-year-old boy on the 10th percentile line has always been on that line, he is continuing to grow along his pattern, which is a good sign.

What Could Signal a Problem?

A few different growth chart patterns might signal a health problem, such as:

  • When a child's weight or height percentile changes from a certain pattern it's been following. For example: If height and weight consistently are on the 60th percentile line until a child is 5 years old, then the height has dropped to the 30th percentile at age 6, that might indicate that there's a growth problem because the child is not following his or her previous growth pattern. Many kids may show changes in growth percentiles at certain points in development, when it's normal for growth rates to vary more from child to child. This is particularly common during infancy and puberty.
  • When kids don't get taller at the same rate at which they're gaining weight. Let's say a boy's height is in the 40th percentile and his weight is in the 85th percentile. (So he's taller than 40% of kids his age, but weighs more than 85% of kids his age.) That might be a problem. On the other hand, if he's in the 85th percentile for height and weight and follows that pattern consistently over time, that usually means that he's a normal child who's just larger than average.

If you have any questions about your child's growth — or growth charts — talk with your doctor.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014

What Is My Newborn Learning?

Play is the chief way that infants learn how to move, communicate, socialize, and understand their surroundings. And during the first month of life, your baby will learn by interacting with you.

The first thing your baby will learn is to associate the feel of your touch, the sound of your voice, and the sight of your face with getting his or her needs for comfort and food met. You can encourage your newborn to learn by stimulating your newborn's senses in positive ways — with smiles, smoothing sounds, and gentle caresses.

Even at this young age, newborns are ready to learn about the world around them. A newborn loves to look at faces, especially mom's. Likewise, in the first days and weeks of life, newborns can recognize their mother's voice. Your infant will respond to your voice (or other interesting sounds) by looking alert and becoming less active. The baby may try to find out where the sound is coming from by looking around and turning his or her head.

When you smile and talk to your infant, your face and the sound of your voice will become a familiar source of calm and comfort, and your little one will learn to associate you with getting nourishment, warmth, and soothing touch.

The "Rooting Reflex"

Babies are born with reflexes or programmed responses to certain stimuli, such as touch. These reflexes help ensure survival. But they also provide an opportunity for a baby to interact with the world. For example, the rooting reflex is elicited by gently stroking a newborn's cheek. The infant's response is to turn head and mouth to that side, ready to eat.

By the time they're 3 weeks old, babies will turn toward the breast or bottle not just out of a reflex, but because they've learned that it's a source of food.

Asleep, Active, or Alert?

During the first month of life, your newborn will spend much of the day sleeping or seeming drowsy. Over the next several weeks to months, your baby will mature and be awake or alert for longer periods of time.

It's important to recognize when your baby is alert and ready to learn and play and when your little one would rather be left alone:

  • A baby who is quiet and alert will be attentive and responsive and interested in surroundings.
  • A baby who is awake but active (squirming, flapping arms, or kicking legs) or fussing will be less able to focus on you. The baby may seem agitated or start to cry when you try to get his or her attention. These are signs that your baby may be getting overstimulated.

Over the coming weeks and months, you'll learn to recognize when your infant is ready to learn or overstimulated.

Encouraging Your Newborn to Learn

As you care for your newborn, he or she is learning to recognize your touch, the sound of your voice, and the sight of your face.

In the first few weeks you may want to introduce some simple, age-appropriate toys that appeal to the senses of sight, hearing, and touch, such as:

  • rattles
  • textured toys
  • musical toys
  • unbreakable crib mirrors

Try toys and mobiles with contrasting colors and patterns. Strong contrasts (such as red, white, and black), curves, and symmetry stimulate an infant's developing vision. As vision improves and babies gain more control over their movements, they'll interact more and more with their environment.

Some Other Ideas

Here are some other ideas for encouraging your newborn to learn and play:

  • Put on soothing music and hold your baby, gently swaying to the tune.
  • Pick a soothing song or lullaby and softly sing it often to your baby. The familiarity of the sound and words will have a soothing effect, particularly during fussy times.
  • Smile, stick out your tongue, and make other expressions for your infant to study, learn, and imitate.
  • Use a favorite toy for your newborn to focus on and follow, or shake a rattle for your infant to find.
  • Let your baby spend some awake time on his or her tummy to help strengthen the neck and shoulders. Always supervise your infant during "tummy time" and be ready to help if he or she gets tired or frustrated in this position. Never put an infant to sleep on his or her stomach — babies should sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
  • Talk to your baby.

Keep in mind that babies develop at different rates, and there is a wide range of normal development. If you have any concerns about your newborn's ability to see or hear, or your baby doesn't seem to be developing well in other ways, talk with your doctor.

Movement and coordination

Babies are born with certain reflexes. They respond naturally to stimuli like light or touch in certain ways — if you put your finger in your newborn's hand, for example, the baby probably will automatically take hold of it. If you lightly touch around the baby's mouth, he or she will likely make a sucking motion.

A Newborn's Reflexes

Babies usually display rooting, sucking, startle, grasp, and tonic neck reflexes soon after birth. These movements are a normal part of their development, and they gradually disappear as babies mature, usually by the time they are 3 to 6 months old.

The rooting and sucking reflexes help a a newborn get nourishment. Rooting prompts an infant to automatically turn in the direction of a food source, whether that's a breast or a bottle. You may be able to evoke this response if you gently stroke your newborn's cheek near the mouth with your hand. Your infant will turn in that direction, mouth open, ready to suck. When an object, such as a breast or a bottle nipple, is placed in the baby's mouth, the baby will reflexively begin to suck.

A baby is also born with a startle response called the Moro reflex. An infant who is startled (for example, by a loud noise) or abruptly moved may respond by throwing out his or her arms and legs and curling them in again.

Your baby also may show a grasp reflex by taking hold of your finger when you place it in his or her palm. If you touch the sole of your newborn's foot, it will flex and the toes will curl.

A baby will also likely show the tonic neck reflex, or fencer's pose. This is when a newborn's head is turned to one side and the infant automatically straightens the arm on that side of the body while bending the opposite arm.

Encouraging Your Baby's Movements

As your baby grows and gains more control over movements, these reflexes will become less noticeable, less jerky, and more purposeful.

Give your infant enough space to stretch and move the arms and legs, as these movements can help strengthen and tone muscles.

It's also important to give your newborn a chance to turn and lift the head. When you do this, make sure to support the head and neck while holding your baby.

Also, never leave your little one unattended, especially on high surfaces such as a changing table or bed. Even newborns can unexpectedly roll or scoot over to the edge.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Your baby's doctor will check these reflexes as part of your baby's routine physical examinations, making sure they're present and the same on both sides, and taking note of when they disappear.

Be sure to discuss any concerns about your baby's movements with your doctor.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015

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