The Newborn Senses: Sight and Eye Color

Dive Deeper

What can newborns see? Newborns have poor eyesight, in part because they did not get much visual information in the womb. At birth, the average baby’s visual acuity is 20/640,1 meaning that an object that an average adult can see 640 feet away, would need to be just 20 feet away in order for the baby to see it. For perspective, a person is legally blind if their visual acuity is 20/200 or worse. Thankfully, the infant’s visual acuity quickly improves. At one month old, the average acuity is 20/235. At six months old, the average acuity is 20/60. By three years old the average acuity is pretty close to an adult’s acuity — 20/25.2 Newborns also lack depth perception, which develops around 4 months old.3

At birth, the retina has not finished developing. As the baby gets older, the baby can see finer details and more colors. (Image Credit: Katrina Furth, Ph.D.)
Contrary to popular belief, a newborn’s vision is not colorless, but rather muted -- they see very little color and only subtle differences between vastly different hues.

Contrary to popular belief, a newborn’s vision is not colorless, but rather muted — they see very little color and only subtle differences between vastly different hues. Although newborns have very poor color discrimination at birth, this improves greatly over the next few months. Specifically, when researchers tested 4-day-old babies, they found that these infants could tell the difference between white and orange, but not white and yellow-green.4

Similar studies have shown that before 4 weeks old, babies have trouble distinguishing:

  • Red and green
  • Red and yellow
  • White and red
  • White and dark blue5

By 8 weeks old, babies can reliably tell the difference between red and white, as well as light blue, and some greens. But they still struggle with yellow as well as certain shades of purple.6 A child’s color vision continues maturing throughout infancy and early childhood.7

Given all these visual limitations, it may seem surprising that newborns are fascinated by visual information. Infants love watching moving objects and faces.8 Despite their limited vision, infants ranging from 12 to 36 hours old show a clear preference for watching silent videos of their mother as opposed to the face of a similar stranger,9 demonstrating visual recognition.

Although adults have a variety of eye colors, most infants are born with light blue or gray eyes. A baby’s eye color finalizes sometime between 6 and 12 months old. The color is determined by the distribution of melanin pigment in the iris. If the melanin stays confined to the back of the iris, then the eye will be blue. If the melanin is found all over the supporting tissue in the iris, then the eye will be brown.10  An infant’s eye color has no known relationship with her ability to see.

Click on the video to see an illustration of how a baby’s eyesight develops