Your Baby's Five Senses: Smell, Touch, Taste, Sight, Hearing

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It can be an amazing experience to watch your baby take in the world for the first time through their five senses. As you watch this unfold, you probably have a lot of questions about how your baby’s five senses work, develop, and evolve.

You may want to know at what point in your pregnancy your baby’s senses are developed. You might be unsure how well developed these senses are at birth, and at what point they become more mature. You may also want to know more about how your baby uses their five senses as they interact with you and the world around them.

These questions are fascinating and will help you better understand the inner workings of your little one better. So, let’s take a deep dive into each of your baby’s five senses, including smell, touch, taste, sight, and hearing.

Smell

Your baby’s sense of smell is one of the first senses to develop in the womb. The olfactory (smell) receptors begin to develop as early as 8 weeks gestation and become fully functional at about 24 weeks. This means that your baby is born with a completely developed sense of smell!

After birth, your baby’s sense of smell helps them locate their food, such as breast milk or formula, says Samantha N. Goldman, OTD, OTR/L, an occupational therapist. “Many mommies can remember that initial ‘crawl,’ where the baby is able to locate the breast to feed right after birth,” Dr. Goldman describes. “Even immediately after birth, infants are able to recognize and be calmed by their mother’s scent, because they were already exposed to it in utero.”

Even after the early stages of life, babies continue to use the power of smell for connections and security, says Daniel Ganjian, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. As your baby gets used to their parent’s scent, they will be able to distinguish their parent from a stranger, says Dr. Ganjian.

Although this can sometimes make handing your baby off to an unfamiliar person difficult, you can harness the power of smell to help your baby feel more at ease in new situations. For example, many babies will feel more comfortable if they are wrapped in a blanket that smells like their parent, even when their parent can’t be physically present, Dr. Ganjian suggests.

Touch

The sense of touch begins to develop early in gestation, as soon as 8 weeks. Your baby’s sense of touch helps them connect with their caregivers and offers feelings of warmth and security, says Fadiyla Dopwell, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Pediatrix Developmental Medicine of Dallas. This is why parents of newborns are encouraged to practice skin-to-skin with their babies, and this is particularly important for premature babies, says Dr. Dopwell.

Although your baby’s sense of touch is fully developed at birth, it continues to evolve as your baby grows, says Dr. Goldman. “Babies do not initially know what all textures and objects feel like—this is learned through experience,” Dr. Goldman notes. “Touch’s primary purpose is to protect us; however, babies also use this sense to bond with their parents, learn how to play, move, and eat.”

As an example, Dr. Goldman mentions your baby’s grasping reflex, one of several instinctive reflexes that are present at birth. This reflex might cause your baby to close their hand around a caregiver’s finger. This may be a pleasant tactile experience for your newborn, causing them to do this again and again until they grasp the finger on their own, explains Dr. Goldman.

Taste

Like smell, your baby’s sense of taste is one of the most primitive and important senses. “Taste buds develop as early as 8 weeks gestation, which means the sense of taste develops within the first trimester,” says Dr. Dopwell. “It is one of the most acute senses developed at birth.” Your baby’s taste buds are fully functional at about 17 weeks gestation.

Even in the womb, your baby is using their sense of taste, as they begin swallowing and tasting amniotic fluid. After birth, your baby has a taste preference toward sweet or savory flavors, which makes them privy to the taste of breast milk. Your baby’s sense of taste is refined by the flavors that they taste through your breast milk or formula; research shows that breastfed babies tend to favor the foods with flavors they were exposed to while breastfeeding. 

As they get older, their taste buds continue to mature and evolve and more flavors become palatable. Once your baby is eating solids, Dr. Ganjian suggests exposing them to a variety of flavors early on so that they will develop an expansive palate and (hopefully!) not become a picky eater.

Sight

Sight is one of the last senses to develop and isn’t fully mature at birth. Your baby’s vision starts to develop in the first trimester, at about 7 to 9 weeks gestation. “By about 27 weeks gestation, your child can open their eyes,” says Dr. Dopwell. “By 31 to 32 weeks gestation, a fetus responds to bright light.” But your baby’s vision is still fuzzy at birth and babies can only see about a ruler’s length ahead of them, she adds.

Although your baby’s sense of sight isn’t completely clear at birth, it quickly starts to be refined as time goes on, says Dr. Ganjian. At first, babies only see people when they are very close up and don’t see color. But as the months progress, babies can see objects that are farther away, and begin to see colors, Dr. Ganjian explains.

You can keep your baby engaged in those early months by holding them a few inches away from your face and looking into their eyes. You’ll see their eyes start to focus and stare at you intently, and you might begin to get a few smiles out of your wee one.

Why Some Babies Are Born Blind

Issues with vision or blindness can be present at birth and may occur as a result of development in the womb. This can happen because parts of your baby's eyes or their optic nerve don't develop properly. Issues can also happen as a result of brain processing issues, where your baby’s brain isn’t able to correctly process the images it receives.

Babies who are born blind or with vision conditions can learn, live full lives, and thrive. But your child will need help from a specialist. If you have concerns about your baby’s vision, contact their pediatrician.

Hearing

Hearing starts to develop as early as 16 weeks gestation and becomes more fine-tuned during pregnancy and infancy. “Like the other systems, the auditory system continues to develop after birth and helps an infant explore the world,” says Dr. Dopwell.

Your baby starts to hear your voice in the womb, and then is able to recognize you after birth, says Dr. Dopwell. This aids in their ability to form secure attachments with their primary caregivers. As the months go on, their sense of hearing helps with language development, Dr. Dopwell explains.

Your baby will be given a hearing test soon after birth, but you should continue to monitor your baby’s hearing as time goes on, because issues with hearing can cause language and learning deficits. Signs that your baby may be hard-of-hearing or deaf include not reacting to loud sounds, not turning their head to a sound source by 6 months of age, and not attempting to make words like “mama” or “dada” by 12 months.

Why Some Babies Are Born Deaf

About 1 in 3000 babies are born with partial or complete hearing loss. Roughly half of all newborn hearing loss is caused by genetics, and about a third is caused by a syndrome, like Usher syndrome or Down syndrome. Other causes include infection in the birthing parent or trauma to the baby’s head. In about a fourth of all cases, the cause remains unknown.

Your baby will get a hearing test soon after birth, but sometimes hearing loss isn’t apparent immediately. If you suspect your baby has learning loss or may be deaf, reach out to their pediatrician. Signs of hearing loss include a newborn who doesn't startle when they hear loud sounds. Starting at 3 or 4 months, a baby with hearing loss may not turn to you after hearing your voice. All families will make different choices regarding how to manage their child’s hearing loss, but it’s important to know your options and begin these discussions early.

Other Senses

Your baby’s sense experience goes beyond the five basic senses. According to Dr. Goldman, there are three other senses that most people aren’t aware of but that baby’s experience: the vestibular sense (sense of balance and movement), proprioceptive sense (sense of body awareness), and interoceptive sense (perception of what’s happening inside the body).

Babies experience these “extra” senses in various ways. For example, says Dr. Goldman, your baby experiences the vestibular sense when they are rocked or bounced. Proprioception isn't fully developed in babies at first; they aren’t able to control their movements yet. This is partly why babies enjoy having their bodies securely swaddled, says Dr. Goldman.

Interoception—which involves things like feeling hunger internally and knowing when to use the bathroom—is also a sense that isn’t fully developed in babies. says Dr. Goldman. “This sense is the most recently identified sense, and a lot of research is still being completed on when and how it develops,” Dr. Goldman notes. “Of course, we know that infants cannot identify, or time, when they pee or poop, so we know that interoception develops as they grow.”

A Word From Verywell

Seeing your baby “come to life” through their senses is one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences as a parent. Often, you are literally seeing your baby discover the environment around them in real-time.

All babies develop at their own rate, and not all babies use or experience their five senses in the same way. If you have any questions about your baby’s senses or overall development, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician with further questions.

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