The Myth: Do Babies See in Black and White?

black and white photo of baby wearing glasses looking at colorful question marks

Do babies see in black and white?

You’ve probably heard someone say with all the authority in the world that babies can see only in black and white when they are born.

But is this fact or fiction? It’s a myth!

Babies are born with poor vision, but they are able to see color from birth.

They are born with all of the cones in their eyes that an adult possesses that allows them to see color. The cones just need time to develop and strengthen to see the full range of color that life offers!

So what does your baby see?

1. First Week of Sight

Your baby’s vision is very limited for the first week of their life. Your baby has just seen the light for the first time and their eyes have to learn how to process it.

Their vision is limited because the receptors in their eyes are not yet fully developed. They can see colors, but they have a hard time understanding them both because the cones in their eyes need to finish developing.

Similarly, their mental development needs to reach a point where they can recognize specific individual items. So your baby won’t care if you pick the blue onesie or the green one yet!

During the first week of life, your little one’s ability to focus on things is limited to about 8 to 12 inches from their face. Don’t be surprised when your baby doesn’t hold eye contact for very long.

Their attention span at this age is only a few seconds at a time.

2. Origins of the Myth

Babies cannot see colors that are not heavily saturated. We tend to surround our babies with soft pastel colors like pink, blue, and yellow.

To your baby, these all appear to be white. Their eyes are not developed enough to pick up on the light, unsaturated colors. This may contribute to the myth that babies are colorblind and could delay their visual development.

We are unintentionally keeping them from experiencing color.

Giving your baby interesting, colorful things to look helps to keep them engaged and to develop the cones in their eyes that see color.

3. Pick Bold Colors Over Pastels

In the first few months, your baby will only be able to see bright, bold colors. Despite the impulse to pick soft pastels and neutral colors to decorate your baby’s nursery, babies have a hard time seeing pale colors.

Studies have shown that babies pick up on five colors by about 3-months-old: red, green, blue, purple, and mustard yellow.

Introducing these colors into their surroundings will help their vision to develop. Your baby will still have trouble keeping focus on a single thing at this stage. You shouldn’t be concerned if their eyes aren’t focusing together, either. It’s not uncommon for their eyes to not align just yet.

4. Learning to Tell Colors Apart

Your baby will be able to start telling colors apart at 2 months old. While they could see colors before this, they are now developing both mentally and physically so that they can tell that these colors are different from one another.

Your baby can tell red and green apart by 2 months old. Within a few weeks, they will add yellow to the list of distinct colors they can identify. As their vision strengthens, they will add other colors to that list.

Strangely, your baby won’t be able to recognize pink or orange until their language develops to a point where they are learning their colors. Scientists think this is because orange and pink both fall into the category of ‘red’ and a baby’s limited vision does not see them as distinct colors.

5. Baby’s Vision Develops Very Quickly

By 6-months-old, your baby will see almost as well as an adult. The most rapid period of improvement is in the first 8 weeks.

Your baby’s vision will sharpen. They will be able to focus on things that are farther away as their stereoscopic vision develops and their ability to perceive depth improves.

The range of colors that your baby can see increases as well. As they begin to crawl, their depth perception is very important.

By this age, your baby will be able to see all five of the categories of colors that an adult can see: red, green, yellow, blue, and purple.

6. Babies Think of Color Differently

Babies process colors instinctively and adults process colors through language. Scientists aren’t sure when babies make that switch.

Processing colors as a constant and a trait of an object requires language-based thinking. This is the stage when your baby is able to tell the difference between “this is red” and “this is a red ball”.

Because your baby’s language skills are limited, it’s hard to determine when this shift happens exactly.

7. Color Understanding is Related to Culture

Different cultures have different ways of viewing color that can affect your baby. Although the physical structures in the eye are not different between babies of two different cultures, some cultures classify colors differently.

For instance, some cultures would classify green and blue as the same category of colors. Although the eye is able to see that they are two different categories, once a baby makes the change to language-based understanding they will begin to mesh those two categories into one.

Conclusion

While widely held as fact, the myth that babies can only see in black and white is shared between parents and friends and family members everywhere, but now you know the truth. Next time someone comes to you with their “did you know” you can set them straight!

Maybe we can help to dispel this myth and get the bright, colorful toys that our children can enjoy into their hands that much earlier!