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The Science of black and white sensory stimulation for newborn babies


We don’t need to be told how amazing our little ones are when they come into the world. That incredible feeling that comes from watching them become aware of and react to the world around them makes up for all the sleepless nights and endless nappy changes.

Yet while you can’t take your eyes off them, they can’t quite reciprocate, as their retinas are not yet full developed and their vision is only about 5% of our own. 

Vision is in fact one of the least developed functions of a newborn’s sensory system (unlike hearing which is fully developed by one month), and your little one's vision won’t catch up to the full capability of an average adult until they are at least 4 years of age.

Incredibly however our little ones possess the skill of distinguishing between dark and light while snug in mum's tum, standing them in good stead to detect colour contrasts later on.

Once their little eyes open, following the lines where dark and light meet allows them to start making sense of this brand new world around them. 

In his paper ‘Visual Scanning in Infants’ (1968) M M Haith described how a newborn is programmed to search for certain kinds of stimulation - 'a) if alert, and the light is not too bright, open eyes; b) if eyes are open, but see no light, search, c) if see light but no edges keep searching; d) if see edges, hold and cross.’.

For the first 3 months of doing this your little one will only see around 12 inches from their face, primarily in shades of black, grey and white. Their ability to then distinguish the full clarity of colour will only emerge at around 6 months, the first colour they truly distinguish being red at around 3 months.

Your little one’s ability to distinguish the full clarity of colour only comes comes from repeated stimulation of all their senses, in those early days all 5 senses contributing to their brain development. 

What makes sensory stimulation so important?

Sensory stimulation of any kind causes the nerve cells in your little one’s brain to multiply and start connecting, and despite everything visual being a little blurry in these early days an incredible 80% of the information newborns absorb comes from what they see.

The nerve cells that are stimulated have a direct pathway to your little one’s brain, accelerating their brain growth and improving their ability to concentrate and focus. The more these nerve cells are stimulated the quicker their brain grows and the faster their visual development, with research repeatedly showing that babies surrounded by the right stimulation reach developmental milestones faster. 

So where does the black & white come in?

As early as the 1940s research has suggested that the best thing to capture your little ones’ attention and stimulate these all important nerve cells are high contrast black & white shapes.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 1960 suggested that the greater the definition of these shapes, the longer the image would hold a little one’s attention, with babies demonstrating a preference for patterned surfaces over plain surfaces, with the complexity of the pattern growing as they did. 

So forget about a room of pastels or sea of brightly coloured toys. Make sure you integrate some simple black and white shapes and patterns into your little one’s day to help them become the smart cookie you already know them to be!  

Shop black and white toys & accessories from luxury independent UK & European brands HERE.

Read more at: 

Perception: An Adapted Process, edited by Thomas L. Bennett (1973)

Visual Scanning in Infants’ M M Haith (1968) 

Research by:  Stirnimann 1944  / Fantz 1961 & 1963 / Salapatek & Kessen 1966