How does the auditory sense develop ?

Hearing is present at a very early stage, while the baby is still growing in the womb. It continues to develop strongly during the first years of childhood. It is the first sense in utero that connects the baby with the outside world.

At the bottom of the page, the “5 senses for kids Foundation” also offers you some fun exercises to do with your child to support the sensory development of hearing.

Awakening to sounds

Hearing skills

When we hear a noise or a word, it is involuntary : we receive acoustic stimuli.

When we listen to music or dialogue, we do so voluntarily.

In the auditory sense, four important components are involved :

  • Sensation
  • Attention
  • Discrimination
  • Memory

Discrimination here refers to the action of discerning, of distinguishing one thing from another with precision.

These four elements work together in the development of auditory skills. They are linked to each other and act simultaneously to enable the construction of perceptual organisation. It gives us the possibility to discover the world through the senses, and to understand it.

As baby grows, he or she will increasingly want to intentionally listen to a sound or music.

The frequency and duration of attention intensify as the brain develops. The baby’s relationship to sound, which was exclusively passive at the beginning of life, will become more and more active as his motor and intellectual abilities develop. In addition, vision becomes an essential partner in the ability to listen. It complements or confirms the information gathered by hearing. There is a close link between looking and listening, seeing and hearing

Listening is also done with the eyes.

Hearing at the fetal stage : one of the first senses to develop

During pregnancy, the first nerve in the body to become active is the auditory nerve. It serves to transmit sound as nerve impulses to the brain. During the first few months in the womb, sound is first conducted through the body fluids and muscle and bone mass in the form of tactile sensations. By the 5th month of pregnancy, the auditory system is sufficiently developed to perceive sounds through the ears, but also through the bones, muscles and body fluids.

The womb is the child’s first place of sound. The child hears through its whole body.

Between the 26th and 28th week, fetal hearing begins. A child perceives sounds from the mother’s heartbeat, digestive and circulatory systems. This is the first music a child hears. The sound level is about 30 decibels, similar to a whisper.

At around 5 or 6 months, a foetus now hears sounds from outside, such as voices, music and street noise.

What a fetus perceives best

A foetus distinguishes between the human voice and other sounds. A foetus is also very sensitive to variations in rhythm and intonation, and is better at distinguishing low frequencies (father’s voice) or bass sounds and less so at high frequencies and high pitches. A foetus also hears its own heartbeat, which is amplified by the amniotic fluid.

A foetus hears its mother’s voice from both inside and outside. As high-pitched sounds are very difficult to hear, the mother’s voice changes. A fetus is very sensitive to the sounds and intonations of his/her mother tongue, which facilitates rapid adaptation to its environment and learning.

In words spoken aloud by the mother, well isolated and well articulated, a fetus recognises vowels at 60%. What a foetus perceives most, is the general pace of speech, the prosody (melody and rhythm) which reaches it unchanged. In short, what a foetus hears best is the music of the language. This is why music plays a fundamental role in the toddler.

The sung voice is better perceived, because singing contains harmonics that enhance the quality of the sounds. The infant seems to “remember” songs and stories that it heard during its time in the womb.

During pregnancy, it is important that you talk to your baby, sing nursery rhymes, or tell simple stories.

!! Beware of noises

Although the frequent sounds heard during pregnancy are appropriate for the harmonious development of the child, it is important to be careful with noisy environments.

In particular, sound stimulation created by placing headphones on the mother’s stomach should be avoided.

The child, hearing and sound

At birth, the auditory system is the most developed of the five senses. During the first six months of life, it develops very rapidly. Immediately after birth, the outer and middle parts of the ear are gradually emptied of amniotic fluid and gradually adapted to the surrounding air. However, fluid still remains in the inner ear.

Thus, for about ten days, a newborn is between fluid and air. When the inner ear empties, babies temporarily loses high-pitched sounds. They must gradually get used to the new sounds transmitted exclusively by air. This learning process takes place gradually over several weeks.

The organs of sight and hearing are connected. As soon as children hear a noise, they turn their head towards the source of the noise. The joint work of the auditory and visual senses is an adaptation mechanism that aims at an optimal perception of the environment.

At birth, children hear and discriminate sounds and all the music in the world. They have a musical ear.
However, by the end of the first year, children lose the universality of their hearing and become specialists in their sound environment.
From the age of 6 months, they can only hear the vowels of their mother tongue and the consonants of languages other than that of their environment.

The different stages of hearing

Between 0 and 3 months : receptive listening

  • Infants recognise their mother’s voice.
  • They instinctively turn their head in the direction of a familiar voice.
  • They discover the vocal exchange around 2 months. They respond to the sound stimuli of their interlocutor (pre-verbal language).
  • By the tone of voice used, they understand that they are being addressed, or that someone is talking about them.
  • Babies’s ear cannot pick up several sounds at the same time, and this tendency will continue until the age of three or four.
  • Newborns calm down to the sound of a lullaby.
  • In moments of great concentration, their favourite song or sound stimuli are difficult to distract him.

Between 3 and 8 months : active listening and the beginning of sound exploration

  • Babies begin to babble.
  • Babies prefer to hear their mother tongue.
  • When drinking a bottle, they may be distracted by the sounds they hear, especially if it is a sound they like.
  • They look at and respond to the sounds made by the adult who is talking to them by following the movement of his/her lips. They understand the principle of “taking turns” in the exchange.
  • They show enthusiasm for music they like. They calm down at the sound of familiar music.
  • They are very sensitive to high-pitched sounds: bells, whistles, etc
  • They follow a sound source that moves within his field of vision.
  • Their interest develops in rattles, or objects that make sounds when shaken.
  • They begin to react to his/her first name.

Between 8 and 12 months : active listening and sound exploration

  • They show a joyful reaction to rhythmic music.
  • With their eyes, they follow a sound that moves in their environment, such as a fire engine passing in the street.
  • Their motor gestures are more numerous: they hit an object against a surface, shake it, squeeze it, tear it, drop it. They show an ability and interest in squeezing objects that squeak.
  • From 8 months, babies like to hear and rehear the sounds they make themselves.
  • At around 9 months, they enjoy dropping an object, especially if the sound of the drop captivates him.
  • They respond physically to lively music.
  • They participate in gesture songs by imitating simple movements. They listen and watche more than they sing.
  • They start to produce small syllables, the beginning of babbling.

Between 12 and 18 months : active listening and sound exploration

  • They are interested in percussion instruments.
  • They sway or wiggle longer to music.

18-24 months : very active listening and exploration

  • They recognise the beginning and end of a song, and can participate with a word or gesture.
  • They recognise more than 20 rhymes and songs.
  • They respond rhythmically to music with general body activity. Their movements are increasingly coordinated.
  • They understand simple instructions and can point to parts of their body.
  • They are very focused when we tell them a story they particularly like.
  • They identify animal sounds that they know from a sound recording. They have fun imitating them.
  • They may be frightened by noises when they were not before.
  • Their attention cannot cope with sensory input from different sources.

Playful activities to do with your child to develop their hearing

  • Children are curious about their surroundings. Take time to describe the sounds in their environment: tell them what objects they are coming from and where they are located.
  • Children like to share moments of singing with you. Little ones appreciate rhymes that allow them to express themselves and use their imagination. However, do not put speakers too close to their ears.
  • Silence can sometimes be a source of anxiety. Ask children to listen to the silence and then to describe what they feel and hear.
  • Toys with sounds are good for children’s development. However, care should be taken, as they can quickly become a nuisance if the noise level is exceeded. Moreover, if you accustom your children to a high noise level at an early age, they may later have difficulty paying attention and, above all, may not be able to tolerate environments that are too quiet and silent.

5 senses for kids Foundation recommends that you :

  • listen to noisy toys before buying them
  • give preference to toys where the volume can be varied
  • be careful with toys that are in direct contact with the child’s ear.

Be aware of the noise level in the room, it should not exceed 30 decibels, which is equivalent to, for example, whispering, breathing noises, rustling leaves, or the ticking of a clock.

5 senses for kids Foundation advises you to also pay attention to noises you hear during the day. Too much accumulated noise can be detrimental to falling asleep and the quality of sleep.