Catching a baby’s eye is more than one of the joys of early parenthood. It’s also a sign of brain development. A new study in The Journal of Neuroscience found that early visual fixation predicts neurocognitive development. 

“For many years, we have suspected that such links exist,” says Glen T. Steele, OD, FCOVD, professor of Pediatric Optometry at Southern College of Optometry, and chair of the InfantSee program and Children’s Vision Committee of the American Optometric Association. 

A baby’s visual fixation holds clues to brain development as a child.

In particular, the study sheds light on the scientific relevance of the eye contact of newborns. Researchers at the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Central Hospital in Finland investigated the relationship between newborn visual fixation (VF) and gaze behavior to performance in visuomotor and visual reasoning tasks in two cohorts with cognitive follow-up at two (n=57) and five (n=1,410) years of age. 

They determined that newborn VF is significantly related to visual-motor performance at both two and five years, as well as to visual reasoning at five years of age. 

According to the authors, their findings suggest that newborn VF is supported by brain-wide subcortical networks and represents an early building block for the developmental cascades of cognition. Their study highlights the need to develop objective and quantitative measures of newborn eye contact to help recognize developmental risks early on.

To Dr. Steele, this is a very important article that joins a growing body of work linking visual fixation ability to overall development, even including autism. He has lectured on the development and importance of looking behavior, and he says the article further emphasizes the need for earlier identification and intervention in all aspects of visual fixation and function. “We can’t wait until they are three or five years old to get involved, as much of their future abilities are already determined in these early years,” he says.

Stjerna S, Sairanen V, Gröhn R, et al. Visual fixation in human newborns correlates with extensive white matter networks and predicts long-term neurocognitive development. J Neurosci. 2015 Mar 25;35(12):4824-9.