After months of waiting to gaze lovingly into your newborn’s eyes, you might be discouraged when your new bundle of joy just doesn’t seem that interested. What does it mean when your sweet baby avoids eye contact?
Newborns tend to avoid eye contact due to their visual limitations until they are at least 6-10 weeks old. At birth, babies’ eyes are still developing; newborns can really only focus on objects 8-12 inches away. Even if you are in a newborn’s range of sight, they might be overstimulated, shy, or just too tired to make eye contact.
Keep reading to learn when your baby might start making eye contact, and what you can do to encourage eye contact in your newborn.
Why does my newborn avoid eye contact?
Even though there are few things better than making eye contact with your newborn baby, that special moment of connection might not happen as often as you’d like. Newborn babies don’t make eye contact often, and even if they seem to actively avoid eye contact, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem.
If your newborn is avoiding eye contact, there are three probable culprits: he can’t see you clearly, he’s overstimulated, or he’s feeling overwhelmed.
Rest assured that your baby’s disinterest in meeting your eye isn’t necessarily a problem: newborns simply have a lot going on! Adjusting to life outside of the womb takes some work, and some of those adjustments are going to make it tricky for your little one to make eye contact.
He can’t see you clearly
Even though babies spend 9 months in the womb developing and growing, their development continues even after they’re born. There are several different parts of your baby’s body that need to fine-tune and adapt after birth, and that includes your little one’s eyes.
At birth, babies can really only focus on objects 8-12 inches away from their face. This is particularly significant because it’s the approximate distance between your face and your baby’s when you’re holding her in your arms. Everything further away than 12 inches will look like a blur of shapes and colors to your little one, so if you’re situated across the room from your baby, she won’t know that you’re nearby.
Newborns also have a hard time focusing their eyes; in fact, you might even notice your baby’s eyes are crossed, or one eye wanders while the other eye stays more focused. This difficulty with focusing is evident in most babies and usually resolves itself over the course of your baby’s first few months.
It takes some time and practice for your little one to learn to control his eye movements. While your baby is still learning, it will be difficult for him to make eye contact with you. For real eye contact to occur, you would have to be about 10 inches away from your little one’s face, and he would have to be practiced enough to focus his eyes on yours and hold your gaze.
This milestone typically doesn’t show before 6-10 weeks postpartum. By this point, your baby will have gained enough control over his eyes to be able to intentionally look at your face and make eye contact.
He is overstimulated
Your newborn has spent the first nine months of his life in the safety and quiet of the womb.
As soon as your little one is born, his senses are bombarded by light, noise, and more sensations than he’s ever experienced before. Even months after birth, it can be difficult for babies to cope with everything going on around them. When your newborn is feeling overstimulated, he may avoid eye contact.
When babies experience more noise, sensations, or activity than they can cope with, it’s known as overstimulation. Overstimulation can also impact school-age children, teenagers, and adults.
Eyes provide much of the stimulation your baby experiences, so closing his eyes or looking away is a coping mechanism to help manage the flood of information reaching his brain. In addition to avoiding eye contact, there are some other signs that might indicate your newborn is feeling overstimulated.
Signs your baby might be overstimulated include:
- Clenching his fists
- Kicking or waving his arms
- Acting upset or tired
- Jerky movements
When it comes to overstimulation, it’s important to be empathetic. Everything around him is new and unfamiliar, and that can cause a lot of stress. Try to avoid situations where your baby is likely to become overstimulated, such as loud parties, meeting many new people all at once, or areas with extra-bright or flashing lights.
If your baby is acting overstimulated, it’s important to let him have some quiet time in an environment that is calm and familiar. If you’re home, taking your baby into his room and cuddling with him for a bit can help slow his heart rate and help him feel better. If you’re out in public, a quick trip to the car for some peace and quiet can help your baby feel more comfortable.
As your baby begins to relax, he’ll feel better and be more willing to make eye contact with you.
He is overwhelmed
In addition to overstimulation because of external factors, it’s possible for newborns to become overwhelmed emotionally.
Just as adults sometimes need a break to rest, relax, and feel safe, babies need time to process their life and the way they feel about it. If your child is experiencing emotional distress, they’re going to be far too preoccupied to make eye contact; in fact, older babies may even look away from an adult as a signal that they need a break.
Some babies are more prone to stress than others, and tend to become emotionally overwhelmed more quickly.
It’s probably been a long time since you were a baby, and you likely don’t remember much about what it felt like.
Imagine being completely dependent on other people, unable to communicate, and pretty much immobile. Life as a baby can be extremely stressful, but thoughtful, empathetic parenting can go a long way toward helping your baby feel comfortable.
Going out of your way to help your baby feel safe and cared for can greatly reduce their stress.
Provide Physical Affection
Physical touch has the remarkable ability to help reduce stress levels by triggering the release of oxytocin and other positive hormones in the brain. Cuddling with your baby can help calm them down if they’re feeling stressed, and it can also help you feel better too!
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that babies are individuals. Some babies love to be cuddled, and some respond negatively to certain types of touches. In some situations, being touched can even raise a baby’s stress levels. Follow your baby’s cues, and they’ll let you know what they need.
Be Emotionally Available
Prompt responses to your baby’s cries can help reduce your little one’s stress levels. Emotional availability can also be proactive in addition to reactive: establishing quiet, soothing routines can help your baby understand that your job is to keep them safe.
Communicating with your child by talking to them and acknowledging their feelings is another great way to show you’re emotionally available for your baby.
Why does my baby look away from me?
As babies get a bit older, they may intentionally look away from their caregivers. Avoiding eye contact in this manner might cause you some concern, but it’s usually not indicative of a bigger problem. In most cases, older babies avoid eye contact with their parents in order to communicate that they’re feeling overwhelmed and need a minute to rest.
While it’s important for you to interact with your baby, it’s also important to remember that your child will need breaks from all the sights and sounds that come with social interaction. Even if you’re just playing with your little one quietly, your facial expressions and noises can still be overwhelming for a small baby.
When your baby needs a break, they may look away from you, which can feel disheartening. Try not to get discouraged, and let your baby have the time they need to rest and get ready to continue playing. Letting your baby take some time to regulate their emotions sets them up for good emotional maturity later in life.
When do babies start making eye contact?
Technically, it’s possible for babies to make ‘eye contact’ immediately after birth. If you do happen to make this type of eye contact with your baby, though, it’s a bit different than the socially-driven eye contact we normally think of.
Newborns’ eyes are still developing, which means it’s hard for them to really focus on anything. Newborns enjoy watching human faces, and they can recognize the faces of their parents from very early on. At birth, however, babies don’t know that eye contact can be social.
The official ‘eye contact milestone’ usually shows up around 6-8 weeks after birth. At this point, babies are beginning to be consciously social, and have realized that making eye contact is part of social interaction. This is about the same time that many babies begin to smile, so you may notice your baby making eye contact with you and then deliberately smiling at the interaction.
Why is eye contact important in newborns?
Eye contact is critical to your child’s growth and development because it helps them to learn and begin to mimic social interactions. It is also incredibly important to parent-child communication because it allows them to convey basic information while establishing the framework for verbal communication.
Babies learn how to act and move by watching the people around them. Certain neurons in the brain called mirror neurons activate when one person watches another.
For babies, these mirror neurons help them learn how they’re supposed to behave and move. When babies make eye contact with adults, they can pick up on social cues and learn how to interact with those around them.
Making eye contact with your child models your behavior, and helps them learn how to move and what to look at.
Eye contact can be an early predictor of your baby’s language skills. As your baby grows, you may find yourself sharing special a moment with your little one.
This ‘joint attention’ occurs when your baby locks eyes with you, and then follows your gaze to see what you’re looking at. The next step in language development occurs when you baby consciously tries to communicate with you by looking at you and then drawing your attention to something they find important.
If your baby wants their bottle, for example, they may look at you to get your attention, look at the bottle, and then look back at you. Your child has learned that they can tell you through their gaze that they want something specific.
If your child develops joint attention skills early, it can predict a larger early vocabulary. So, fostering eye contact with your child can help them become effective communicators as they grow up.
Making eye contact can actually synchronize brain activity between you and your baby! A 2017 study found that eye contact between a parent and infant syncs up their brain activity, which in turn leads to more effective communication.
Brainwave synchronization comes from a shared intention to communicate, so making eye contact with a baby also makes them more vocal and ‘talkative.’ Direct eye contact between a baby and their parent creates a connection so deep, it actually changes the brain activity of both the infant and the adult.
Encouraging eye contact in newborns
Because eye contact can be so important, it’s a good thing to try and encourage eye contact in your newborn.
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you try to encourage your little one to meet your eye:
- Don’t force the issue. Every baby is different, and some babies just aren’t very interested in direct eye contact. If your baby doesn’t want to look at you, that’s okay.
- Encourage eye contact when your baby is awake, well-fed, and happy. If your baby seems overstimulated or overwhelmed, try again when they’re rested.
- Hold your baby in your arms; it’s the perfect distance from your face to facilitate eye contact.
- If your baby looks at you first, hold their gaze until they look away. Talking to your baby while looking at them can also encourage them to initiate direct eye contact.
- Discourage screens in favor of in-person interactions. Children and babies learn best from people; your responses to their actions are crucially important.
- Don’t get frustrated. Make sure the eye contact you do make with your baby is a positive, social experience that they’ll want to repeat in the future.
Remember that you can’t force your baby to look at you. Respect your little one’s boundaries and interests, and gently encourage social interaction that they’re comfortable with. As your baby gets older, you’ll have more and more opportunities to interact and connect with them.
Could not making eye contact be a sign of autism?
Lack of eye contact isn’t ever symptomatic of autism on its own, especially in infants. Babies have many other reasons to avoid eye contact, such as overstimulation and nearsightedness. In some cases, however, avoiding eye contact can be a sign of a bigger problem.
Many parents worry about their child’s refusal to make eye contact because they believe it can be a sign of autism. In children, a tendency to avoid eye contact can be an early indicator of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Individuals with autism often experience negative emotions or sensory overload while making eye contact. They may also have difficulty understanding nonverbal social cues, or receiving nonverbal information. ASD is usually diagnosed around the age of two years old, but an avoidance of eye contact can manifest as a very early sign of autism before a child’s first birthday.
The DSM-5, a diagnostic manual for mental disorders, defines autism as a “persistent lack of social communication and interactions across multiple contexts.” Lack of eye contact alone doesn’t necessarily mean your child has autism; if your child still interacts socially, communicates non-verbally, and has close personal relationships, they wouldn’t be diagnosed as autistic.
If your child is younger than three, avoids eye contact and exhibits additional developmental delays, it might be worthwhile to get in touch with a developmental pediatrician or psychologist for an evaluation. If you notice a substantial decline in your baby’s social activity or willingness to make eye contact, contact your child’s pediatrician for a professional recommendation.