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In the womb, your baby's eyes develop well enough to perceive light, shapes, and some color. At birth, she can focus on objects 8 to 15 inches away – just the right distance to gaze at your face when you hold her. Amazing!
Early development of the eye
Your baby's eyes start out as two tiny outgrowths from the developing brain. Beginning at 6 weeks of pregnancy, these growths start to fold inward and form two cup-like structures. As these structures enlarge, they remain connected to the brain by a stalk that will eventually house the main optic nerve.
At about 7 weeks, the main parts of the eye that enable sight – the cornea, iris, pupil, lens, and retina – start developing, and they're almost fully formed just a few weeks later.
By about 10 weeks, your baby has eyelids, though they remain closed until about 27 weeks.
And here's an interesting fact: Although your baby's tear ducts start developing at about 8 weeks, they won't be completely formed until a few weeks after birth (and it may take even longer for preemies). This means that your baby's tear production doesn't reach full potential until he's a few weeks old.
The cornea, pupil, iris, lens, and retina
The cornea is the clear "window" at the front of the eye, which lets in light.
The dark spot in the center of your eye (pupil) and the pigmented part that surrounds the pupil (iris) determine the amount of light that's let in. In bright light, the iris expands and the pupil gets smaller, restricting the amount of light entering the eye. In the dark, the iris shrinks and the pupil gets bigger, allowing in as much light as possible.
As light enters the eye, it hits the lens, a structure behind the pupil that directs the light toward the back of the eye. The shape of the lens changes to focus on objects that are close-up or far away.
The layered structure at the back of the eye (retina) contains millions of light-sensitive cells called rods and cones. Rods help us see in dim light, and cones detect color. This information is transmitted along the optic nerve to the brain, where we make sense of the images that we see.
Your baby's eye color
At birth, it's likely that your newborn's irises will be blue or gray. That's because a newborn's irises don't have a lot of melanin, the pigment that gives eyes their color.
As the months go by, the cells in your baby's irises start to make more melanin. Your baby's final eye color depends on how much melanin develops, which is determined by the genes she inherited from you and your partner. Blue, gray, and green eyes have less melanin, while brown eyes have more.
By the time your baby is about 9 months old, her eyes will probably settle into their permanent color.
When and how your baby's sight develops
At 27 weeks, your baby's eyes are open, and she can blink in response to bright light. If you shine a flashlight at your tummy, you may feel her respond with a burst of flutters and wiggles.
At 30 weeks, the pupils are able to constrict and expand, allowing the eyes to let in more or less light. Because she has more rods than cones at this point, she may be able to detect the dim outlines of shapes, but not their colors.
By 32 weeks, she can focus on large objects that are not too far away, and this ability to focus will stay that way until birth. At 34 weeks, she's also able to track movement. And she now has enough cones to see her very first color – red. Why red? That's the color of the inside of your uterus, so the cone cells for red develop first.
Your baby's vision at birth is about the same as it was at 36 weeks of pregnancy. Although your newborn's eyes are physically capable of seeing, her brain isn't ready to process all that visual information, so things stay pretty fuzzy for a while.
Gradually, as the visual pathway between her eyes and brain matures, she can see more colors. Her focusing abilities also improve, and she develops depth perception. By the time she's 8 months old, she'll be able to see almost as well as you do.
What you can do during pregnancy
Get plenty of beta-carotene, a key nutrient for the healthy development of your baby's eyes. It's abundant in yellow, orange, and red fruits and vegetables, like carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash. Your body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, which supports your baby's vision and has benefits for you as well. It helps repair tissues after you give birth, fights infections, supports your immune system, and metabolizes fats.
Note: During pregnancy, it's important not to get too much retinol, a type of vitamin A which can cause birth defects and liver toxicity in high doses. It's found in some vitamin supplements and acne medications. (You can get as much beta-carotene as you want from fruits and vegetables.)
Key milestones in fetal sight development
|6 weeks||Eye "cups" form on either side of the head.|
|7 weeks||The cornea, pupil, iris, lens, and retina start developing.|
|8 weeks||Tear ducts start to develop.|
|10 weeks||Eyelids formed, and the rods and cones appear.|
|27 weeks||Eyelids can open and close, and your baby blinks in response to light.|
|30 weeks||Pupils can constrict and expand, and your baby may be able to see dim shapes.|
|32 weeks||Your baby can focus on close-up objects.|
|34 weeks||Your baby can see the color red and track movement.|