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One of the most exciting things about being pregnant — aside from the obvious end result — is imagining what your little one might look like. And for a lot of us, eye color lands right at the top of our list of curiosities. By now, you’ve probably heard at least one person say that all babies are born with blue or gray eyes. Usually, that’s followed up with a warning about getting too stoked if your newborn comes out with baby blues. “They’ll change colors,” an unsolicited-advice-giver will say. But is that really true? As you’ll see, the answer is both yes and no to that one.
If your Google search history has been all about baby and newborn eye color, you’re not alone. According to the most recent search data available, that topic is searched nearly 5,500 times per month. That’s because parents want to know why their baby’s eye color looks so different than theirs, why does it change, and what role does genetics play in all of this.
So, how long do babies’ eyes stay blue, if they’re all born that way? Well, let’s determine what’s fact or fiction.
Give it to me straight: Are all newborns’ eyes blue?
Sorry to burst your blue-eyed bubble, but all babies are not born with blue eyes. In fact, more newborns globally have brown eyes than blue.
In one 2016 Newborn Eye Screen Test study, Stanford University doctors found that out of nearly two-thirds of the 192 newborns they examined were born with brown eyes, accounting for 63 percent. Only 20 percent of the babies were born with blue eyes.
The researchers also determined that the majority of the babies with blue eyes were Caucasian, while most babies of African-American, Asian, and Hispanic descent were born with dark eyes. Which brings us to our next point…
Why do babies’ eyes appear blue or gray at birth?
There’s no denying a lot of babies — especially fair-skinned babies — appear to have blue or gray eyes when they’re born. And when we talk about eye color, we’re talking about the iris, which is the colored ring surrounding the pupil. Here’s where we get into a little science. We have a natural pigment in our bodies called melanin that is responsible for giving us the color of our skin and hair. Individuals with darker skin and hair have more melanin.
Likewise, the amount of melanin in the front layers of the iris determine eye color. The more melanin an iris has, the darker it appears, leading to black or deep brown eyes. Eyes with less melanin appear green, gray, or even light brown. Blue or light gray eyes appear when there is very little melanin.
Got it? Good. So, melanin is secreted by special cells called melanocytes, which respond to light. Since newborns have obviously spent the last — oh, you know — nine months in darkness, the melanocytes weren’t triggered to secrete melanin. Thus, explaining why so many babies seem to have blue or gray eyes at birth. Most babies will change their eye color to their permanent shade by the time they reach six to eight months of age. By this point their vision has already improved by leaps and bounds from their newborn stage, and melanin production has been amped up.
So, why do blue or gray eyes often change?
Once your baby has been out in the world longer, their melanocytes will start secreting more melanin (although genetics and ethnicity factor in, which we’ll get to in a minute).
If those melanocytes are hoppin’, a baby’s eyes will begin to appear brown or even black. Alternately, if your little one’s melanocytes secrete minimal melanin, they’ll likely keep their blue or pale “gray” peepers. Green or hazel eyes happen when the melanocytes produce a range of melanin somewhere in the middle.
Fun fact? Despite how it appears, the color of the pigment in a baby’s eye doesn’t cause change. As a matter of fact, eyes lack blue, gray, green, or hazel pigment. Brown is the only pigment we have in the eye since melanin is naturally dark brown. The reason eyes can look like other colors has to do with light absorption and reflection. With blue eyes, more light is reflected or scattered. Scattered light reflects at shorter wavelengths along the blue area of the light color spectrum. Green and hazel reflect somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
How do genetics factor into all of this?
Genetics and melanin are intrinsically linked since genetics actually control how much melanin a person has in their body.
Which parent determines eye color?
Wondering how you get blue eyes naturally then? As you probably learned at some point in grade school, the DNA you and your partner kick in determines what color baby’s eyes will ultimately be. But you know what? It isn’t exactly cut-and-dry.
While two blue-eyed parents are most likely to have a blue-eyed baby, there are at least 12 genes that affect eye color — with each combination resulting in a different phenotype, or observable characteristic. So, just because you or your partner or both of you have blue eyes, don’t go counting your blue-eyed babies before they hatch.
Two blue-eyed parents are highly likely to produce blue-eyed offspring, but that won’t be true every time. The same goes for two brown-eyed parents. If there’s a blue-eyed grandparent in the family, it’s possible brown-eyed Mom and Dad could bring home a little blue-eyed angel. No one (not even the doctors) can tell you for sure what your baby’s eye color will be.
No matter the eye color, though, it should have no impact on your baby’s eyesight. By around three months, most babies will start tracking objects like your face or a toy with their eyes. As they get older, they begin tracking with their heads.
How can you tell if your baby’s eyes will stay blue?
You may not love hearing it, but you’re just going to need patience. Those first six to nine months of baby’s life are pretty telling, with the most dramatic eye color changes occurring during that window. Don’t get comfortable just yet, though. Even though a baby’s eye color is often stable by nine months, it takes roughly a year for melanocytes to finish their work. That means it isn’t uncommon for eye color changes to take place all the way up to baby’s first birthday.
Here’s the part that’ll really make you scratch your head, though. Some experts say eye color can change until your little one is two or three years old — and some even suggest it’s possible for eye color to change as late as six years old!