Babies use their ears to take in massive amounts of information about the world around them. Hearing also enables them to learn language and stimulates brain development. That's why it's so important to identify and address hearing problems as soon as possible.
Your baby should receive a hearing screening test shortly after birth. From then on, the doctor should do a hearing check at every well-baby exam.
When hearing develops
Your baby can hear sounds from the outside world when you’re about 23 weeks pregnant. By 35 weeks, all parts of the ear are completely formed, but your baby’s hearing continues to be fine-tuned, even after birth.
How hearing develops
From birth, babies pay close attention to voices, especially high-pitched ones. Your baby will respond to familiar sounds (like you or your partner talking) and probably startle at loud or unexpected noises.
How your baby responds to sounds depends in part on temperament. A more sensitive baby may jump at every little noise, for example, while a calmer baby may take more sounds in stride.
By around 2 months, most babies get quiet when they hear familiar voices and make vowel sounds like ohh. Don't worry if your little one sometimes looks away while you're talking or reading to her, but do tell her doctor if she doesn't seem to respond to your voice at all or doesn't startle at sounds in the environment.
At about 4 months, babies start to look for the source of a sound, and by 6 months they try to imitate sounds. By 8 months, they babble and respond to changes in tone of voice. By your baby's first birthday, she'll probably say single words like "ma-ma" and "da-da" and respond to her own name.
Your baby will continue to use hearing to make sense of the world and to learn to communicate.
Even though the sense of hearing is up and running at birth, the portions of the brain that respond to complex sounds and attach meaning to what is heard continue to develop until about age 12.
While some types of hearing loss are unavoidable, there are things you can do to protect your baby's hearing:
- Keep things out of his ears, including cotton swabs.
- Help him stay as healthy as possible – to prevent ear infections, for example.
- Protect him from loud, prolonged noises. (A good rule of thumb is that the noise level should be low enough that you're comfortable talking over it.)
To help your baby's development, look for ways to expose her to a variety of sounds. Here are some things you might do in the course of your day together:
- Explore music. Choose perennial children's favorites, or pop in your own favorite CD. Sing to her. Point out the rhythm of a ticking clock and the sound of the wind chimes.
- Talk and read to your child, starting when she's a newborn. There's no reason to wait until she's older. Listening to your voice helps your child develop an ear for the cadence of language. In fact, varying the pitch of your voice, using accents, singing, and vocalizing makes the aural connection between you and your baby that much more stimulating. Plus, the more you talk and read to her, the more sounds and words she learns as she gets ready to talk.
You don't need to bombard your baby with words, but if he seems interested, tell him what you're doing. For example, if you're packing the diaper bag, give him a play-by-play description of what goes where. When you dress him, name the color and type of garment you're slipping over his head and describe the texture of the socks you're putting on his feet.
Tune in to what your baby hears and comment on it. Whether it's the hum of an airplane engine or the purr of a cat, identifying what your baby hears helps her understand her environment. Enjoy together the auditory equivalent of stopping – or at least slowing down – to smell the roses.
Once she's 4 or 5 months old, she may start watching your mouth intently when you speak. She may even try to imitate inflections and utter consonant sounds such as m and b. Go ahead and babble with her!
When to be concerned
The vast majority of babies have excellent hearing, but a few have problems, especially if they were born very prematurely or were deprived of oxygen or had a severe infection at birth. Babies with a family history of congenital hearing loss are more likely to have impaired hearing. These risk factors will be taken into consideration when your baby's hearing is evaluated.
Your baby may be able to sleep right through the telephone ringing and the dog barking – that's perfectly normal. Babies need their sleep. And if, on occasion, your baby doesn't seem to hear you, he may simply be tired or distracted.
Still, parents and caregivers are often the first to realize that something's wrong. So let your baby's doctor know right away if you notice any warning signs of hearing loss. You may be referred to an audiologist (a hearing expert) for a comprehensive hearing test.
The earlier a baby's hearing problems are found, the better. According to research, providing hearing assistance to children who need it before they're 6 months old significantly improves speech and language development.