Learning through her senses is a foundational part of all ways that your baby learns. She receives stimulation from the environment through her sensory systems. These systems start developing through stimulation when she is in utero. Sensory information reaches your baby through tactile interactions, visual stimulation, auditory experiences, her sense of smell, and exploration of taste and touch with her mouth.
As a parent, you can help your baby develop her sensory pathways by exposing her to a variety of experiences that use her senses. Smell the pungency of herbs, try the sour taste of yogurt, feel the roughness of a piece of wood, listen to a bird chirp, or gaze at the blue sky. As she learns, she may develop a preference for different sensory learning styles—for example, tactile and kinesthetic, visual, or auditory.
One of your baby’s earliest senses is touch. As an embryo, she can sense touch with her nose, lips, and the surface of her skin. Through development, she may remember different early tactile sensations—the comfort of her mother’s kiss or the tickle of her father’s beard.
As your baby grows, her tactile skills increase. She develops her sensitivity to temperature. To protect and defend herself from too much stimulation, she may withdraw from touch that feels overbearing to her. Her sense of touch is also tied in with her visual and kinesthetic development. If she touches an object and looks at it, or if she touches an object and moves an area of her body at the same time, her pathways coordinate the different stimuli.
You can help your baby develop her sensory pathway of touch by offering her multiple repetitive experiences. Be aware of her clothing and how its textures feel next to her skin. Baby wearing, skin-to-skin contact, massage, bath time, soft plush toys, and blankets are tools for tactile stimulation. Give her chances to play with mud, dirt, and sand in places where she can be free to explore different sensations and textures. Offer her food with different textures. As she develops this pathway, she will build an expectation of tactile sensations from her past experiences.
Vision is the most complex sensory system and the least mature one at birth. Your baby’s eyes, her ability to move her head and body, and her brain work together to coordinate her ability to see. When she is born, her vision is blurry and unfocused. In her first year, she continues to develop color perception, visual acuity, the ability to focus and distinguish patterns, depth perception, binocular vision, and the ability to watch and follow movement.
You can help your baby develop her sensory pathway of vision by providing a variety of things for her to look at. As a newborn, she particularly enjoys and responds to faces—especially your face when you talk to her with expression and movement. In her early months, she responds to mobiles, hanging items for her to grasp, and objects in motion. Offer toys in bright colors and pictures or photos in her crib or on the wall of her nursery. You can help her recognize different visual images by changing her environment: take a walk to the park or a ride in the car.
In addition to developing her senses of touch and vision, your baby develops her ability to hear while she is in the womb. By the time she is one year old, she can hear, remember, discriminate, and respond to different sounds at the same level as an adult. Her sense of hearing is sensitive to loud noises, which may startle her. She alerts and responds when you speak to her in a high-pitched voice, she finds low-pitched voices soothing and often calms to these.
You can help your baby develop her auditory sensory pathway by being sensitive to the level of sound with which she is comfortable. Offer her sounds that are appealing and stimulating without being too loud or overstimulating. Talk, sing, and read to your baby. Shake rattles and play musical instruments, and play your favorite songs while dancing and bouncing her to the music. Point out different sounds in her environment, repeat the sounds, and invite her to repeat them.
Your baby’s sense of smell is linked most directly to her brain. The molecular structure of different substances makes up a scent or smell. The smell stimulates your baby’s smell receptors, which send signals to her brain. Her olfactory system then brings up memories that activate her brain. Just as the smell of the ocean may bring up past beach experiences for you, your baby remembers her past feelings of comfort when she nurses and smells your milk and your skin. In studies where a baby was presented with five different cloths infused with the milk of five different mothers, the baby recognized her own mother’s scent.
Your baby’s sense of smell is there to protect her. Unpleasant smells, like the scent of a skunk or raw sewage, repel her. Likewise, the smells of smoke, gas, rotten eggs, or spoiled fish can protect her by stimulating her to avoid them.
You can help your baby develop her sensory pathway of smell by being aware of the scents in her environment and providing appealing ones—fresh flowers, essential oils, cooking aromas, and scents in nature. Chemical perfumes and artificial fragrances are made by putting molecules together to reproduce smells; they do not elicit a natural sensation. Artificial synthetic smells can be harmful to your baby’s sensitive nose, so it is most effective to use natural scents in her environment to evoke her sense of smell.
Before she is born, your baby starts developing her sense of taste, which may affect her food preferences later. If you are breast-feeding, she can taste the foods you eat through your milk, and she can taste the difference between your milk and formula. Even though taste and smell are separate senses with their own receptor organs, these two sensory systems are connected. Taste tells her whether a food is sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, or umami (savory). Smells influence your baby’s perception of taste.
Your baby also explores her senses of taste and smell through her sense of touch as she feels different textures and temperature of foods and other objects that she puts in her mouth. You can help your baby develop her sensory pathway of taste by offering her a variety of foods with different tastes. Her taste receptors send messages to her brain to stimulate and develop this pathway, and she learns from a broad experience of tastes.