“I'm all ears!”

Auditory perception of children from the womb to 2 years of age
Reading time: 6 minutes


What can a child hear in their mother's womb?

Babies in the womb are really hard workers: as soon as the egg and sperm meet, they begin a series of processes that will lead them to be able to perceive the world and adapt to it as soon as they are born. The amazing thing is that some abilities begin to form so early that it seems incredible in a little creature of just one and a half centimetres and 1 gram of weight! In fact, these are the parameters of a foetus at 8 weeks of age. At this time, the hearing system has already begun to form and will be increasingly refined until at 24 weeks the basic structure is complete and the child has already begun to become familiar with the sounds that derive both from the intrauterine environment and from the outside. 

In the amniotic sac, children are highly stimulated from a sound point of view, in fact the heartbeat of the mother has an average frequency of 72 bpm: as if they were listening every day to the rhythm of the drums in the song Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen! They also listen to all the noises that occur in the maternal body, the gastric, intestinal and respiratory movements, a flow of noises and sounds that accompany them as they grow.

Previously it was generally thought that children in the womb were “passive”; in reality with some experimental techniques it has been possible to notice that they are very active and react, even in a differentiated way, to what they hear: they are very sensitive to their mother’s voice, to a precise, rhythmic and continuous sequence of words (for example a nursery rhyme or a lullaby) and to music. It has in fact been confirmed that these stimuli are “relaxing” and produce a slowing in the heart rate, whereas sudden, loud noises induce them to have shock reactions such as opening and closing their limbs, batting their eyelids and cardiac acceleration. 

So, it has been widely demonstrated that in the period of gestation, children are like sponges from an auditory point of view: voices, music, (soft and measured) sounds are memorised when they are in their mother’s womb and recognised after they have come into the world, and those which in the womb provided a kind of relaxation will most likely have the same effect after birth: this “sound familiarity” between before and after childbirth is very reassuring for newborns and provides them with an “auditory” continuity that makes them feel protected.   

Hearing from zero to two years of age

At birth, newborns have a fairly organised auditory system, not unlike that of adults, although the portion of the brain used to encode sounds is still immature and will develop gradually during childhood. From birth, therefore, they react to acoustic stimuli based on their physiological state (sleep or wakefulness) and the type of sound: what they do recognise from their first days of life is their mother’s voice. As evidence of this, some researchers conducted an experiment on infants of three weeks of age: the children sucked the same milk from two different teats, one was associated with the maternal voice and the other with a different female voice: the children spent much more time drinking milk from the teat connected to their mother's voice.

The predilection for human voice is evident: if dads talk to them several times in the last three months of pregnancy, they are very likely to recognise their dads at birth. The fact that infants are already prepared to prefer the human voice is an element of fundamental importance since talking with children favours the future acquisition of language. 

Infants also know how to differentiate the sound of words spoken by a person from any other noise, and at 2-3 months they can locate the origin of a voice by turning their head and directing their gaze towards the sound source.

As they grow, auditory perception is refined increasingly, allowing children to discriminate different sounds: already at 2 months, they can distinguish sounds such as “ma” and “pa” and even understand a difference in intonation, so you should talk to them often, using different tones (playful, surprising, cheerful, calm, livelier) emphasising the various moments of the day... In this way, you will enrich their stock of sounds!

From 4 months onwards, they react to different types of noises: one that is too loud disturbs them, whereas a rattle or a musical game or a song/rhyme that they love makes them smile and turn their head to look for where such a pleasant sound is coming from. You will notice that they will increasingly stare at your mouth as you speak and at 6 months they will begin to try to imitate what they hear. At this age you may have the feeling that your child wants to tell you something, and many mums and dads confirm this perception: you look into the eyes of your little one and have a dialogue, try to put yourself in their shoes and play at talking in their place (“You're right, I think today is really hot”... “With this lovely smile you want to tell me that you really liked this little song, don’t you?”).

At 7 to 8 months your children will already experienced different sounds and will start repeating syllables in sequence (ma-ma, ba-ba, pa-pa); to help them refine their auditory perception even more, you can repeat the same syllables and introduce others in a dialogue that is also rich in tonal changes and that will help them to acquire new auditory and linguistic skills.

From 1 to 2 years they will be able to recognise more and more words, intonations, fables, music, nursery rhymes and they will ask for them; help them to learn multiple expressions, this is the period when real language emerges and the more they listen to new terms, the more they will refine their acoustic perception and the more they will understand new words.       


How to help your children develop auditory perception?

The auditory sensory apparatus of the young child is programmed in such a way as to promote social interaction, so nothing is easier than following this “natural programme”:

  • mums and dads, when your infants are still in the womb, talk and sing with them, the human voice is invaluable for human growth.
  • allow them to listen to music (songs, any musical instrument you have at home) lullabies, nursery rhymes and natural sounds (for more information you can read the article “The music we have inside”).
  • babies in the womb and newborns do not like loud and sudden noises, so avoid situations that are too noisy.
  • read fairy tales and stories, there are booklets suitable for all ages, even for children a few months old: read in a clear and punctuated way emphasising the story, modifying your tone of voice, facial mimicry and gestures; have fun when you read, your infants will not take their eyes off you.
  • your children can understand even before they can speak, so use as many words as possible to help them recognise different terms.
  • sing with them.

In this way you will not only help your children in developing their auditory perception, but you will also have the chance to communicate together in a fun and creative way!

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