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7.3: Sensory Development

  • Page ID
    142749
    • Amanda Taintor

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    Overview of Sensory Development

    As infants and children grow, their senses play a vital role in encouraging and stimulating the mind and in helping them observe their surroundings. Two terms are essential to understand when learning about the senses. The first is sensation, or the interaction of information with the sensory receptors. The second is perception or the process of interpreting what is sensed. Someone can sense something without perceiving it. Gradually, infants become more adept at perceiving with their senses, making them more aware of their environment and presenting more affordances or opportunities to interact with objects.[1]

    Vision

    What can young infants see, hear, and smell? Newborn infants' sensory abilities are significant, but their senses are not yet fully developed. Many of a newborn's innate preferences facilitate interaction with caregivers and other humans. The womb is a dark environment void of visual stimulation. Consequently, vision is the most poorly developed sense at birth. Newborns typically cannot see further than 8 to 16 inches away from their faces, have difficulty keeping a moving object within their gaze, and can detect contrast more than color differences. If you have ever seen a newborn struggle to see, you can appreciate the cognitive efforts being made to take in visual stimulation and build those neural pathways between the eye and the brain.

    Although vision is their least developed sense, newborns already prefer faces. When you glance at a person, where do you look? Chances are you look into their eyes. If so, why? It is probably because there is more information there than in other parts of the face. Newborns do not scan objects this way; rather, they tend to look at the chin or another less detailed part of the face. However, by 2 or 3 months, they will seek more detail when visually exploring an object and begin showing preferences for unusual images over familiar ones, for patterns over solids, faces over patterns, and three-dimensional objects over flat images. Newborns have difficulty distinguishing between colors, but within a few months, are able to distinguish between colors as well as adults. Infants can also sense depth as binocular vision develops at about 2 months. By 6 months, the infant can perceive depth in pictures (Sen, Yonas, & Knill, 2001). Infants who have experience crawling and exploring will pay greater attention to visual cues of depth and modify their actions accordingly (Berk, 2007).[1]

    Hearing

    The infant's sense of hearing is very keen at birth. The ability to hear is evidenced as soon as the 5th month of prenatal development. An infant can distinguish between very similar sounds as early as one month after birth and can differentiate between a familiar and non-familiar voice even earlier. Babies who are just a few days old prefer human voices, they will listen to voices longer than sounds that do not involve speech (Vouloumanos & Werker, 2004), and they seem to prefer their mother's voice over a stranger's voice (Mills & Melhuish, 1974). In an interesting experiment, 3-week-old babies were given pacifiers that played a recording of the infant's mother's voice and of a stranger's voice. When the infants heard their mother's voice, they sucked more strongly at the pacifier (Mills & Melhuish, 1974). Some of this ability will be lost by 7 or 8 months as a child becomes familiar with the sounds of a particular language and less sensitive to sounds that are part of an unfamiliar language.[1]

    Pain and Touch

    Immediately after birth, a newborn is sensitive to touch and temperature and is also sensitive to pain, responding with crying and cardiovascular responses. Newborns who are circumcised (the surgical removal of the foreskin of the penis) without anesthesia experience pain, as demonstrated by increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, decreased oxygen in the blood, and a surge of stress hormones (United States National Library of Medicine, 2016). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there are medical benefits and risks to circumcision. They do not recommend routine circumcision; however, they stated that because of the possible benefits (including prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and some STDs), parents should have the option to circumcise their sons if they want to (AAP, 2012)[1]

    The sense of touch is acute in infants and is essential to a baby's growth of physical abilities, language and cognitive skills, and socio-emotional competency. Touch impacts not only short-term development during infancy and early childhood but also has long-term effects, suggesting the power of positive, gentle touch from birth. Through touch, infants learn about their world, bond with their caregivers, and communicate their needs and wants. Research emphasizes the great benefits of touch for premature babies, but the presence of such contact has been shown to benefit all children (Stack, D. M. (2010). In an extreme example, some children in Romania were reared in orphanages in which a single care worker may have had as many as 10 infants to care for at one time. These infants were not often helped or given toys with which to play. As a result, many of them were developmentally delayed (Nelson, Fox, & Zeanah, 2014). [1]

    Taste and Smell

    Not only are infants sensitive to touch, but newborns can also distinguish between sour, bitter, sweet, and salty flavors and show a preference for sweet flavors. They can distinguish between their mother's scent and that of others and prefer the smell of their mothers. A newborn placed on the mother's chest will inch up to the mother's breast, as it is a potent source of the maternal odor. Even on the first day of life, infants orient to their mother's odor and are soothed when crying by their mother's odor (Sullivan et al., 2011).[1]

    Other Senses


    [1] Psyc 200 Lifespan Psychology. Authored by: Laura Overstreet. CC BY: Attribution

    [2] The Brain in the First Two Years. Provided by: Lumen Learning, Lifespan Development CC BY: Attribution


    This page titled 7.3: Sensory Development is shared under a mixed 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amanda Taintor.