Newborns arrive in the world with relatively undeveloped eyesight—after all, they don’t need to see anything until they’re born. A typical newborn has about 20/200 or 20/400 vision, as well as a primitive sense of color recognition. In fact, babies don’t begin to really differentiate between colors until about 5 months of age. While babies may not be able to differentiate colors as well as adults, they can typically tell the difference between bright colors, which explains why they are drawn to primary colors.
Babies and adults alike, however, can experience conditions that affect their ability to see colors. This is typically due to defects in specific cells called the “cones” of the eyes. These cells are responsible for sensing red, green, and blue colors along with all the variations and shades of each.
Inability or difficulty in telling the difference between certain colors is called colorblindness. However, this term is often incorrectly used: true colorblindness means a person sees the world in only shades of black and white. While this condition is possible, it’s very rare. Most people who cannot see one or more colors are called “color vision deficient.” Color vision deficiency is typically genetic, meaning if you are color vision deficient, chances are your baby might be too. Boys are more likely than girls to experience color vision deficiency. The most common type of color vision deficiency is the inability to tell the difference between red and green, followed by blue and yellow.
Most children and adults are diagnosed with color vision deficiency by having them look at special testing plates with dots that make a pattern. One color of the dots is in the pattern of a number while another color serves as the background color. If a person does not see the number, he or she may be color vision deficient.
Because babies cannot communicate these differences yet, it may take time for you to recognize any color vision deficiencies. When your baby is old enough to learn more about colors, usually around 4 years old, you can observe if he or she has difficulty in picking out a red versus a green crayon or seem to rely on other senses, such as sense of smell, before trying out food instead of looking at its color.
Until then, a family history of color vision deficiency is one of the most reliable indicators your baby may have difficulty seeing or distinguishing color. If your baby has difficulty differentiating between certain colors, this should not affect him or her in daily living (save for a few mismatched outfits). As your child grows, you will need to be mindful of their color vision deficiency but it should not impact their education.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, February 2019
- Babies typically develop color vision by age 5 months.
- Color vision deficiency affects a person’s ability to tell the difference between two colors, such as red and green or blue and yellow. True colorblindness is the inability to see any colors whatsoever.
- Most children must be old enough to understand color concepts before a physician can diagnose color vision deficiency usually around age 4.