To being understanding vision development it is important to highlight the difference between sight and vision. Sight depends on the eyes themselves, how they work and how they take in visual information. Vision however is the work of the brain, not the eyes alone and is a complex system guiding what we see, how we feel, and how we act. Vision helps to organize our movements, ability to learn, emotions, as well as our cognitive and behavioural development. We are born with sight anatomically, but vision requires tremendous developmental maturation throughout child development.
The quality of a person's vision development has the ability to impact social growth and interactions, intellectual skills, emotional maturation and especially behaviour. It is also important to note that no matter what developmental milestone have been missed the brain has the ability to go back and re-learn these skills through training. Neuroplasticity is possible at any age from children to seniors, these visual skills can be developed. To ensure your child’s visual development is on track, it is recommended your baby have their first eye exam at 6 months of age.
At birth the brain and eye connection is not well organized and still has a lot of development to come. Your baby can see only about 8-12 inches in front of them. This is when bonding and a mother’s or caregivers face becomes familiar usually during feeding. At approximately 3 months infants will begin to be attracted to patterns with contrast and will begin to attentively gaze towards movement of an object with their eyes. Sensory motor development around this time includes your baby beginning to control their neck. This is critical to vision development, because having the ability to stabilize the head, and therefore eyes sets the stage for survival, exploration and further motor milestones such as grasping, crawling, balance, and visual perception. If the neck is not stable the eyes will see a blurry image which impedes the visual system from making sense of the babies environment.
At 3-4 months when the neck gains control, binocular control (using 2 eyes together) begins to develop. An infant will now track an object as it comes closer (convergence), and as an object moves away (divergence). This is a precursor to developing hand eye coordination- as a baby begins to reach for object and manipulate them, gaining awareness of shape, color, form and other forms of visual perception.
Coordination of eye movements continue to develop and by the age of 5-7 months, a baby can locate accurately how far an toy/object is from them as appreciate for depth perception increases. This can act as motivation for movement such as creeping and crawling. Initially the baby will move their trunk to aim the eyes towards an object but eventually eye movements will become independent of the head.
By 12 months visual perception skills have been put to use throughout their environment, such as visual closure and visual memory. Visual closure is the ability to identify a specific object from the background, for example recognizing their soother or bottle among many toys. Visual memory will be seen as your baby recognizes familiar people. By one year of age, visual acuity is developed to the point where a baby can see in the distance (up to 20 ft away) and at near both with clear vision. This will allow them to actively give visual attention to other people, animals or action happening near them, or point towards something they want as a form of communication.
Premature babies are born with underdeveloped organs which includes their eyes. In these cases there are additional risks of developing complex visual complications and should be followed closely with your eye care team. With proper early intervention and and monitoring of eye growth, visual development can be equal to that of a full term infant.
During toddler years a child’s sensory development is evolving as they move, explore and learn from their environment. These include body mapping, self navigation through space, and touch. While vision helps to reinforce or initiate these actions, they are beginning to be integrated with vision to provide a understanding of their world. Through climbing, playing, touching, and moving they gain critical sensory information for the brain to paint a picture of the body, allowing a child to gain self concept and be in command of their movements and actions. Peripheral vision is also developed during this time, so a child can be better aware of objects outside of their direct line of vision.
In the preschool years, vision directs development of language concepts such as describing objects in relation to one another. This includes understanding concepts like, near, next to, in front of or behind. During these years, vision guides the development of fine motor skills, such as, cutting with scissors, pencil grip, coloring, building, zippers, and shoelaces. For many of these tasks sensory integration is essential, for example vision isn't the only sense involved, they will depend on touch, auditory cues and even motor memory for performance, but its the integration of these skills that will lead to success.