Perceptual Development

Using the Senses

Perceptual development involves your baby learning to develop and use her five senses (touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight) to explore the world around her through her developing motor skills.


Mom takes Brooke to a baby gym class. Mom places Brooke on the floor in front of the infant climber. Brooke simply sits for a few moments looking straight ahead at the climber, then she begins to reach out her hand as if she is going to touch it.


Brooke is using her perceptual information skills to make a choice about which motor action she will make (using eyes and hands to explore and observe equipment). Brooke is doing this before she decides if she even wants to crawl on the climber. Perceptual development combined with gross motor skills enable your baby to move and gain information and perspective on the environment she is in.

As a parent, it is easier for you to see gross motor skills than perceptual skills developing in your baby. For instance, you will see your baby start to raise her head during tummy time (gross motor skill), before you see how she is interpreting the world around her.

Think about when your baby turns her head toward you or reaches her arms out to you, you are not only seeing the gross motor skill, but you are also seeing how your baby uses her sense of touch and sight to connect with you.

In order for your infant to develop motor skills, she must see something in the environment that encourages her to act and then use her understanding to refine her movements so that she can interact with the world.

Motor skills give your baby solutions to her goals of wanting to move and interact. For example, your baby will only learn to walk when the nervous system matures, allowing her to control certain leg muscles. This will occur when the legs have grown enough to support her weight and her desire to move. By working to develop your baby’s perceptual motor skills, you enable her to move more effectively and with thought.

Typically, your baby will want to move when she is motivated by the challenge to cross the room; then she will initiate a few stumbling steps. Your baby will then refine those stumbling steps into smoother steps that are more effective for reaching the desired goal. Refining of steps happens through repeated trying and perception of the results obtained from that action.

It is important to note that even though the development chart in your physician’s office may show motor development unfolding in a smooth, upward progression, this is not always the path your baby will take. Babies perceive things in their environment in different ways, and this will determine what motor path she takes. In fact, detours from the physician’s chart will almost always occur as your baby develops at her own pace, and this is perfectly normal as long as she reaches the developmental milestone at the end within a few months of the suggested age.

Think about your baby right now. Does she crawl with hands and knees on the floor? Does she scoot on her bottom with one leg extended? Or does she scoot with both legs bent at the same time? No matter the way she moves, your baby is just thinking about how to reach her goal.

There are many things you can do to support perceptual development in your baby as she uses her motor skills. Do at least one of the activities listed on the next page with your baby, and see how her skills develop.

Everything that involves your baby’s ability to move goes into the category of motor development. When you work with your baby to improve perceptual motor skills, you help her move more successfully and with intention. One day soon she’ll get where she’s going all by herself!

Auditory perception:
The best thing you can do is read stories with your baby from birth. You do not have to read the words on the page, but you can focus on describing the pictures. Play different genres of music with your baby. Watch her reactions. Does she try to shake her body or move her head in response? Does she ignore it? Does she listen very carefully?

Visual perception:
To help your baby improve this important sense, engage her in activities that sharpen her understanding of what she sees. Lay her down on the floor and place some colorful patterned and checkered toys in front of her. Give her an opportunity to look for the toy by placing a few to the right or left of her eyesight.

Oral perception:
Let your baby taste new foods that are not too spicy or too sweet or too sour or too salty, but that feature one of these characteristics. Watch her pucker her mouth or suck furiously or chew excitedly or even spit it out.

Olfactory perception:
Let your baby smell different objects. It is possible that she may not understand to sniff in, but you can pass an object under her nose and away to see if she smells it and how she responds. Does she like the f lower smell and try to grab it away from you? Does she linger or scrunch her nose at the smell of a cut lemon? This exercise can be challenging, but your baby is smelling different scents all the time in her environment.

Tactile perception:
Give your baby objects with different textures. Give her corrugated cardboard to feel or a fabric with raised pat terns or a squishy, slimy toy and watch how she interacts with it. Does she repeatedly run her fingers over the edges or the surface? Does she recoil and move away? Does she poke at it? Does she try to put it in her mouth?