Image of a baby

By Mishal Ali Zafar

Have you ever looked at a baby and wondered what they’re thinking? Babies have a tendency to look at simple things with so much fascination, it kind of makes you question what processes and connections are going on their freshly developing minds. But sometimes babies can stare at things for what seems like hours, and it may be concerning, like staring at the ceiling fan. I mean really, what's so great about that? What does it mean if your child stares at the ceiling fan, and why do they do that?

As cute and simple as babies seem, there is a lot of development going on inside their young brains. Marnie Baker, M.D., pediatrician at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California tells Romper that newborns don’t yet have a well developed sense of vision, so they are mostly attracted to things with light, movement, and contrast, including ceiling fans. She says that by 6 to 8 weeks of age, as the baby’s visual system is developing, they should be able to focus on their parents' faces, and begin preferring looking at people rather than inanimate objects.

Pediatrician Catherine Gritchen, M.D. of Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital in Long Beach, California tells Romper that while babies can see at birth, their focus is not precise. She explains that the things most in focus for newborns are the things about 8 to 12 inches in front of their eyes, about the distance from the crook of mom’s arms to her face, and closer or farther objects will be more out of focus. Despite their poor focus, she says that babies can visually attend to things like ceiling fans better due to the movement and contrast.

A baby’s vision develops slowly over their first six to eight months, notes Gritchen, which is one of the reasons why high contrast objects and moving objects like ceiling fans are more likely to attract the baby’s attention. “Babies naturally crave sensory experiences to help stimulate their rapidly developing brains,” she explains, “and a moving object or higher contrast object is going to cause more intense stimulation.” It is important to remember, she adds, that what interests and engages one baby may overwhelm and frighten another baby.

So if your baby is staring at the ceiling fan, it’s a completely normal part of their visual capabilities and development. However, Baker suggest parents keep track of how long this behavior continues down the road. “So, while there is no cause for concern for infants to gravitate towards lights and ceiling fans,” says Baker, “if this behavior persists past 3 to 4 months of age, you should discuss this with your pediatrician.”

A quick internet search of the term “staring at ceiling fans” will yield numerous results about autism. Many experts believe that when older children tend to stare at things like ceiling fans, it can be a sign that they are on the autism spectrum. According to TIME, however, it’s not feasible to diagnose a child under the age of 2 with autism because they are still in the process of developing their mental and physical skills. The article explained that doctors can begin screening a baby for autism at 18 months, but there is so much variability in how each individual baby develops, it is hard to make a reliable diagnosis.

If your baby is under 4 months of age, staring at a ceiling fan may just be visually stimulating for them. If your baby is older than that, or if you see signs that concern you, just keep your pediatrician in the loop.