Infant Perceptual Development and the Five Senses

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  • 0:06 Habituation &…
  • 1:28 Sensory Development
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

What is habituation and how does it affect perceptual development in an infant? Learn the answer to this question and more as this lesson explores sensory development in infants.

Habituation and Perceptual Development

A newborn enters the world. He quickly recognizes his mother's soothing voice, but sounds he does not recognize in the environment grasp his attention quickly and often startle him. A three month old has a favorite stuffed animal that she holds frequently. Other than wanting it near, she seems to pay little attention to it. When she is given a new stuffed animal of another color, she examines the toy closely. A four month old will happily eat his banana baby food but puts up a fight about eating new foods that are introduced as his mother tries to feed him.

These are all examples of habituation. Habituation is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated exposure to the same stimulus. In other words, repeated stimuli receive progressively less processing from the brain. Because of this, novel information and repeated information are treated differently by the brain. It's been shown that infants habituate to different stimuli, and they use this habituation to draw conclusions and learn about their environment.

Habituation can affect this learning process in different ways. Many important studies of infant perceptual development have relied on the concept of habituation. Perceptual development refers to the development of the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

Sensory Development

Let's look at this perceptual development in an infant. What do we know about the development of the five senses at this stage? We used to believe that newborn babies were extremely limited in their perceptions of the world around them. A couple of old myths that illustrate this are that babies cannot see at birth or are colorblind, and that babies cannot hear at birth because their ears are filled with mucus and fluid. We now know that notions like this are false, and that newborns have some amazing capabilities!


An infant can hear and react to sound, even before he is born! In the uterus, an unborn child hears familiar voices, its mother's heartbeat, and other internal sounds. These familiar sounds often comfort them once they are born. Have you ever seen a baby become calm at the sound of its mother's voice or ocean sounds?

This may be because these sounds are already familiar to them. The child may startle at sudden, loud noises as well. Sounds like this are less familiar to the infant. Differentiation between unfamiliar and familiar sounds will eventually assist with the process of learning verbal language.


A newborn's vision at birth is about 20/200. He can clearly focus on objects about 7-18 inches away, and his favorite thing to look at is the human face. This is convenient since 7-18 inches is also about the same distance as a mother's face while the child is being held or fed.

A newborn prefers contrasting dark and light color patterns or shiny, slow-moving objects. If an object catches the newborn's attention, he can track its movement in an arc above his head. This is a far cry from the myth that babies cannot see at birth!


From the time of birth, an infant can distinguish his mother's scent. He can even tell the difference between his mother's breast milk and formula or another mother's breast milk. In the first week of life, he will learn the differences in smells and start to prefer pleasant scents to unpleasant ones.

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