Newborns can hear sounds right away after birth. Their sense of hearing is one of the first senses to develop and be functional. However, that doesn’t mean they process sounds or understand language the same as an older baby or child. Let’s look at what newborns can hear and how their hearing works.
What Sounds Can Newborns Hear?
Newborns can hear loud noises and sounds from the moment they are born. Some key facts about newborn hearing abilities:
- Newborns respond to loud noises by startling, crying, or waking up.
- They can hear noises and voices at normal speaking levels.
- Softer, distant sounds may not get their attention.
- Newborns seem to enjoy comforting sounds like gentle music, their mother’s voice, or white noise.
In the weeks after birth, a newborn’s hearing continues to mature. As the auditory pathways in the brain develop, their hearing becomes more refined. By around 2 months of age, babies have hearing abilities almost as acute as an adult’s.
How Does Hearing Work in Newborns?
A newborn’s sense of hearing works much like an adult’s, but there are some differences. Here is an overview of how newborn hearing functions:
- Sound waves enter the outer ear and travel through the ear canal.
- The eardrum vibrates from the sound waves and transmits these vibrations to tiny bones in the middle ear.
- These bones amplify the vibrations and send them to the inner ear.
- Tiny hair cells in the inner ear convert the vibrations into electrical signals that travel to the auditory nerve.
- The auditory nerve sends the signals to the brain, which interprets them as sound.
The difference in newborns is that the ear canal and middle ear space are very small. This may slightly diminish the sound level reaching the inner ear. However, the inner and middle ear anatomy are fully developed at birth, allowing newborns to hear effectively.
Hearing Screenings for Newborns
Because hearing is so important for normal language development, most newborns have their hearing screened shortly after birth. Hearing screening is a quick, non-invasive test to detect hearing loss or deafness. The two main types of newborn hearing screening are:
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test – This checks inner ear function by measuring otoacoustic emissions produced in the inner ear when responding to sound.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test – Small electrodes placed on the head measure the brain’s response to clicks or tones.
If a baby fails the screening test in one or both ears, it indicates they may have hearing loss. However, false positives are common. Babies who don’t pass the screening will be referred to an audiologist for full diagnostic testing. If hearing loss is confirmed, early intervention can make a big difference in language development.
Newborn Hearing Screening Results
|Screening Result||Meaning||Next Steps|
|Pass in both ears||Newborn detected test tones indicating normal hearing ability currently||No further testing needed unless new concerns arise|
|Fail in one or both ears||Newborn did not detect test tones indicating possible hearing loss||Referral made for full diagnostic hearing testing|
Do Newborns Understand Speech?
While newborns can hear talking, they do not comprehend speech. Their brains are still rapidly developing and do not understand language initially. Here’s what newborns can do with the speech sounds they hear:
- They respond to the tone of voices – A soothing voice calms them, an angry voice upsets them.
- They recognize their mother’s and father’s voices.
- They show interest in the unique rhythm and melody of voices.
- They make cooing noises and begin babbling in response to speech sounds.
It takes time before babies attach meaning to words. Around 6-9 months, babies begin recognizing frequently used words they hear like “bottle” or their own name. Their receptive language skills steadily improve with brain development. By 12-18 months, toddlers can comprehend simple phrases and instructions with the help of context like gestures.
Speech and Language Development Milestones
|Age||Speech and Language Milestones|
|0-3 months||Coos, makes gurgling sounds, cries differently for different needs, startles to loud sounds|
|3-6 months||Begins babbling, copies different speech sounds, recognizes words for parents|
|6-12 months||Babbles using speech-like intonation, responds to simple words and phrases like “no” or “come here”, first words develop|
|12-18 months||Vocabulary builds to 15-50 words, combines words into short phrases like “want milk”, follows simple 1-step instructions|
|18-24 months||Vocabulary expands to around 300 words, uses 2-4 word phrases frequently, follows multi-step directions|
Ways to Promote Hearing and Speech Development
As a new parent, there are many easy things you can do starting right from birth to help your baby’s hearing and communication abilities develop:
In the First Weeks
- Have any hearing screening done before leaving the hospital
- Respond to your newborn’s noises and cries so they learn communication is reciprocal
- Frequently talk, sing, and read to your baby – they love listening to your voice!
- Pay attention to their reactions to sounds to identify any hearing concerns early
In the First Year
- Use exaggerated facial expressions, gestures, and tones when communicating
- Describe what you’re doing as you care for your baby
- Read simple books together and point out pictures, colors, and objects
- Try to minimize loud background noises when interacting or playing with your baby
- Have baby tested for ear infections if they seem uncomfortable or frustrated when nursing
From 1-3 Years Old
- Sing interactive songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with gestures
- Point out and name objects, animals, body parts, colors, etc. when reading or playing
- Prompt your toddler to call common items by name and expand to simple phrases
- Set an example by describing your actions in 2-3 word sentences
- Monitor speech and language milestones and discuss any concerns with your pediatrician
Newborns enter the world ready to hear and listen! While their language comprehension develops gradually over months and years, hearing is crucial right from birth for normal speech and language development. By understanding what newborns can hear, getting their hearing screened early, and regularly exposing them to speech and reading, parents can maximize their baby’s communication abilities starting on day one.