Baby Talk: Understanding how a baby’s senses develop. Here’s what you need to know

Senses are a human’s ability to see, hear, touch, taste and smell. These five senses help us perceive our world.

They work together to help us understand our surroundings. They help a baby adapt to life outside the comfort of the womb.

When a baby is born, they can see approximately 8 to 10 inches. Amazingly, that is the distance between a mother’s breast and her face. Even mothers who are bottle feeding will hold their baby near their breast as they feed their baby.

Babies love to look at faces. In neonatal intensive care units, drawings of faces are commonly used to help babies learn to focus.

When I watch family members holding a newborn, I have observed that they also hold a baby approximately 8 to 10 inches from their face. Many things we do with babies are by instinct.

Babies love the sound of the voices they have been hearing while growing in the womb. Babies hear around the 24th week of gestation. People doing ultrasounds on babies in the womb have noted fetuses react to sounds of the ultrasound at this age.

I played Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” almost every day during one of my pregnancies because I wanted to see if my baby would be soothed by the song after he was born. Sure enough, whenever he was fussy, I could sit down to the piano and play the sonata and he would quiet down.

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Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace.

Babies have a strong need to be touched. I believe you cannot hold a baby too much. After World War II, there were many orphans in Europe. Many of the orphanages did not have enough staff to hold babies while they were being fed.

They hung bottles on the cribs with the thought a baby would seek food when hungry. Unfortunately, babies died due to the lack of being held while being fed. It became painfully evident that only the babies held while fed grew and prospered. The baby’s sense of touch helps a baby learn trust.

A mother’s milk is sweet and made especially for her baby. It tastes good to the baby. The mother’s skin also produces a sweat that is similar to the taste of amniotic fluid for the first few days. Formula doesn’t taste like the mother’s milk. If a mother is using formula to feed her baby she can still have the baby close to her skin. Her baby can taste her in another way.

I believe the strongest sense a baby is born with is smell. The nose forms around the eight week of the pregnancy. This is why the sense of smell is profound from the beginning. I can hold a baby 12 inches away from a mother, engage her baby with my voice and face, the baby look at me for a moment, and then turn to their mother.

The next thing the baby does is push against me as they try to leap to their mother. They find their mother by smelling her.

A famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant, wrote in 1760 that our knowledge of the world depends on how we perceive our world. Much of our perception is formed through the interaction of our senses. When we see love in someone’s eyes, smell their delicious scent, are touched with love and care, hear their tender voice we learn to trust and we thrive.

This is true for babies.

This is true for everyone.

Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace. Her column appears every other week in Healthy Living in the Bradenton Herald. Contact her at

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