One of the most tender parts of bringing a baby into the world is looking right into their eyes mere moments after they are born. It's an especially emotional point in which parents get to bond with their little one. But what happens when your child isn't able to make eye contact three months down the line? And how serious is it if your baby had no issue making eye contact initially, but struggles to look at you when she gets older?
We've consulted Dr. Edward Kulich, a pediatrician at Celebrity Pediatrics in Watchung, NJ, and Lourdes E. Quintana, director of Early Steps at the Howard Phillips Center For Children and Families in Orlando, FL, to get answers to all parents' hard questions when it comes to their child's ability to hold eye contact.
When Should Babies Begin Making Eye Contact?
Although babies have limited vision at first, they can see some of their closer surroundings. "Vision development is a progressive process," explained Dr. Kulich. "Newborns can typically see about a foot away, which happens to be the distance to a mom's eyes when breastfeeding. Around 2 months old, babies can focus and make eye contact. The older the infant gets, the more interactive and progressive the eye contact becomes."
Once your child hits the six-month mark, they should be interested in the people around them and their general environment. "When it comes to eye contact, you're going to see babies trying to look at their environment around 6 months old," said Quintana. "They love faces! They're going to look for their mom's face, and when they find mom, they're going to be constantly looking at all areas of her face, including her eyes, cheeks, and even for a smile. Eye contact is very important because that's how you're going to be able to connect."
What Should I Do If My Baby Isn't Making Eye Contact?
Concerned about your little one's vision? Book an appointment with your pediatrician ASAP. "At 2 months old, any infant who doesn't seem to track across the room should be brought to the doctor's," advised Dr. Kulich. "Babies and toddlers should consistently be making eye contact. While some days may be more interactive than others, any significant decline in eye contact should prompt your pediatrician's attention."
Quintana agreed, stressing that a doctor will be able to see if your child is visually impaired by completing simple tests. "We will get a little rattle, toy, or flashlight and move it in front of their eyes," explained Quintana. "If they can actually track and follow the toy, then we know that they can actually see."
"It's very common that we see that little ones have some conductive hearing loss, meaning their ears are working fine but there's something interrupting the sound."
It's also important to have your child's hearing checked, as it could be a reason your baby isn't making eye contact. "When we start to see a concern that eye contact is not happening, we often look at whether or not the child is able to hear," explained Quintana. "If the baby isn't responding to the environment, doesn't respond when you call her name, or look at you when you're trying to engage with her, we'll run a hearing test."
Although that may sound scary to parents, it's not uncommon for babies or toddlers to have hearing issues.
"Babies always have some sort of ear infection, whether they're breastfeeding or bottle feeding," stressed Quintana. "It typically happens more with the little ones who are bottle fed. A lot of times, fluid gets into their ear and causes ear infections, so a doctor will prescribe an antibiotic. While the antibiotic will clear the infection itself, sometimes there's still some fluid in the ear. It's very common that we see that little ones have some conductive hearing loss, meaning their ears are working fine but there's something interrupting the sound."
What Can I Do to Help My Baby Make Eye Contact?
Aside from making a doctor appointment, there are a few things parents can do to encourage eye contact. "Talking, singing, and making eye contact with your infant is the best way to reinforce their visual development," said Dr. Kulich. "Infants crave attention and the more they get, the more interactive they become."
What Should I Do If My Child Previously Made Eye Contact, but Has Stopped?
Although there's no reason to sound the alarm bells until you meet with your child's doctor, eye contact regression can be a sign of a larger problem. "Infants and toddlers not making eye contact could indicate an issue with eye or brain development," said Dr. Kulich. "A regression of eye contact is an indication to parents that they need an evaluation from their doctor. While not all loss of eye contact is caused by autism, it's an important consideration that should be addressed by your doctor if a toddler that was previously making eye contact has a regression."
Quintana agreed that while eye contact regression isn't a great sign, parents shouldn't jump to conclusions without consulting a medical professional. "If the child actually has autism, they're going to avoid looking at you because that's way too much sensory input going on," she explained. "Maybe in order for them to actually pay attention to you, they have to look away so they can actually focus on what you're trying to tell them."
If this sounds like your little one, Quintana cautioned against this one common mistake: "The one thing you don't want to do in this situation is say, 'Look at me! Look at me!'" she said. "Don't try to force your child to look at you if he or she is having a sensory overload."