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What are senses?
The five senses – taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing – are the tools babies use to understand their environment.
Everything babies experience through the senses supplies them with a constant stream of information that's stored in the brain. As they grow and develop, they use that information to build a picture of the world around them.
Even the simplest things can help your baby understand his little world.
For example, notice how many senses come into play when you cuddle your baby. He can see your face and hear your voice. He can feel your touch and a gentle sense of movement, and he can smell you, too. All these sensations send messages to your baby's brain and help him learn.
How do my baby's senses develop?
Your baby's senses begin to develop very early in pregnancy. In the first trimester, taste buds, smell receptors, and touch receptors form. Touch receptors form first around the mouth and cheeks and soon spread to the rest of the body.
Taste buds and smell receptors are also forming in the first trimester. By the time your baby is born, she can hear, smell, and taste and is very sensitive to touch. She can see too, although vision is very blurry.
Newborns can't yet understand these new sensory experiences. The bundles of nerve tissue that carry information from your baby's sensory receptors to the brain, called neural pathways, aren't mature enough.
The key to helping the neural pathways mature is use: The more they're used, the more they develop and the more connections are created. So the more your baby experiences, the more her brain is able to make those connections.
Over time she builds up an understanding of the world and begins to use it to guide the way she thinks and behaves.
What role do senses play in bonding?
From the moment your baby's born, he'll use his senses to continue the bonding process that began in the womb. He's already familiar with the sound of your voice and will love to listen to you coo and babble to him.
His senses are primed to recognize your unique smell, which he became familiar with while still in utero. A study has shown that having at least 50 minutes of skin-to-skin time immediately after birth helps your baby recognize you by smell alone.
Your baby's sense of touch can also help you bond in these early days. Holding your newborn on your chest, skin-to-skin, calms him and stabilizes his heart rate.
In fact, touch can make both you and your baby feel happier and more relaxed. These gentle and loving moments cause the hormone oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone," to be released. Oxytocin can encourage or reinforce the feeling of closeness that comes with bonding.
Baby massage can help build this connection between you. Massage uses many of your baby's senses, not just touch. Your baby sees your face, hears your voice, and smells your unique scent. All these sensory experiences help you and your baby build a special bond.
Massage is a wonderful way to bond with your baby. In this video you'll find step-by-step, easy-to-follow instructions.
How can the senses help my baby grow?
Your baby uses her senses to find the food she needs to grow. Minutes after being born, babies show a preference for the smell of breast milk. Your newborn can even turn her head and move toward your breast in a bid to feed herself.
Your baby's ability to taste is very sensitive too. In fact, she may have a wider distribution of taste buds around her mouth than you do! In the first three months babies can distinguish between sweet and bitter tastes, and they show a definite preference for sweet. Not surprisingly, your breast milk is naturally sweet.
Touch may also play a part in helping your baby grow, especially if she's born early. Babies born prematurely tend to put on weight faster and go home from the hospital sooner if they're massaged while in the NICU.
When your baby starts eating solid food, her preferences for certain flavors may be influenced by what you ate during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. She'll continue to use all her senses as she discovers new tastes, sights, sounds, and textures that come from a more varied diet.
She'll add to what she already knows about the food and drink you give her by examining it very closely. Rolling peas, shaking a cup of water, squishing pasta, and occasionally putting something in her mouth may seem like a fast way to make a mess, but for your baby, it's a sensory jamboree!
What role do senses play in my baby's physical development?
All the senses come into play as your baby learns about the physical world around him.
To begin with, his world is a jumble of overlapping sensations – of touch, light, smell, taste, and sound. But within weeks his neural pathways start to develop. People, objects, and events begin to take shape in your baby's mind.
Babies use their sense of touch to learn about the shape and texture of things. In the early months, his fingers and hands aren't enough to help him do this, so he uses his mouth as well.
A baby's mouth has more nerve endings per square inch than any other part of his body. He can discover a huge amount by sucking and gumming a toy. In other words, this is why your baby puts almost everything in his mouth!
As your baby's vision improves, hand-eye coordination begins to develop. By the time he's 6 to 8 weeks old, he'll move his head and eyes to follow an object. At 3 months he can look at an object he's holding in his hands.
By 4 to 5 months, his sight has developed enough for him to understand distance, allowing him to reach out and grasp his toys. This new skill opens up a whole new world of discovery.
As babies grow, they seek out new sensory experiences, which boost their development. Many baby toys are designed to encourage learning, but everyday activities feed their hungry brain too.
A cup to pour and scoop water in the bath hones fine motor skills and teaches your baby about liquids and gravity. A trip to the park with its many sounds, sights, smells, and textures provides lots of sensory stimulation while allowing your child to practise new mobility skills.
How can senses boost my baby's communication skills?
The senses play a crucial role in helping your baby learn to communicate. Even before birth, she knows the sound of your voice and can recognize the voice of your partner and any siblings.
After birth she'll begin to hone her listening skills by turning toward familiar sounds. By 3 months your baby may look directly at you when she hears your voice. She may even start gurgling or trying to talk back.
Not all communication is verbal, so sight plays an important role too. Your baby learns to read your face and connect it with the tone of your voice very early on. At just 4 months, your baby will expect the speech sounds coming from a person to match their facial expression. She may look puzzled and upset if they don't.
As your little one grows and learns to talk, sensory experiences help her build vocabulary. Words like smooth, rough, slimy, and soft are almost impossible for her to understand without experiencing them for herself.
I'm worried that one or more of my baby's senses aren't developing. What should I do?
Your baby's senses affect every aspect of his daily life and development. All babies develop at their own pace, but if you have concerns about any of your baby's senses or his ability to cope with sensory stimulation, talk to your doctor.
Your doctor can also help if you feel unable to give your baby the sensory experiences he needs. It's possible that you're suffering from postpartum depression. If you are, your healthcare provider can help you find the support you need.
Looking for ideas to stimulate your baby's senses? Find out how to boost development through play.