It may be surprising to know that a baby can recognize its mother’s voice by the third day of life. This amazing development can only take place if your child can hear properly. The National Institute of Health recommends that all babies be screened for hearing loss, but each state has different regulations and parents should consult with a hospital physician about their newborn’s hearing status.

There are two screening options used to measure your child’s ability to hear as a newborn – the Auditory Brain Stem Response Test (ABR) and the Otoacoustic Emissions Test (OET). The latter sounds like something you would use on your motor vehicle, but both of these methods involve using a small device in or near the ear to measure your child’s ability to respond to sound. If an infant being tested does not pass the screening exam, the test should be repeated.  If the same results are obtained, the screener should refer you to an audiologist and/or Ear Nose Throat (ENT or Otorhinolaryngologist) specialist for further evaluation.  If your child was screened, you should know the results before taking your precious bundle of joy home from the hospital.

If all goes well with the initial screening, many sounds, textures and movements may still frighten your baby at first. We take the normal sounds of the household and outdoors  for granted and naturally tune them out, but to a baby, all sounds are a new adventure.  While some babies are more sensitive to sound than others, this doesn’t mean you have to keep things quiet all the time. Just know that your baby may become over stimulated by too much sensory information coming in at once, and it is important to have quiet time after any kind of stimulating activity. You can calm your baby by rocking or singing softly.  It isn’t important that you sing well, because your voice is calming in itself.

Beyond enjoying sounds, your child needs to hear normally to develop language.  If a child is diagnosed with a hearing disorder before six months of age, early intervention can increase chances of normal development.  That’s why early detection is so important.

Many parents are unsure how to determine whether their baby is hearing properly, so here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • Does he startle when he hears loud noises?
  • Does he stop making sounds and stop moving when he hears talking or other noises?
  • Does he turn his eyes or his head to locate the source of a sound?
  • Does he appear to respond to your voice as you talk to him?
  • Finally, does he respond to a sound that is out of his sight?  To find out, shake a rattle or call out his name while you are standing behind your baby.

Once you know that your baby is responding to sound, it’s easy to help him develop new words.  Talk to him about everything you are doing.  Don’t worry, you won’t be considered crazy as long as the baby is in the picture.  While you are dressing him, say, “Now we are putting on your shirt.  I have your arm and I’m pushing it through the sleeve. You have on a bright yellow shirt.”  Speak in a friendly sing-song voice, referred to as Child Directed Speech (CDS) or otherwise known as “parentese.”  What sets CDS apart from other speech is its special rhythm and pitch. The pitch is higher, the delivery rate is slower and sentences are shorter.  This comes out sounding something like, “Want your blankie? Say blankie. Ba-Ba..Blankie.  Mama’s blankie baby.”

As your baby ages, you may have to deal with repeated ear infections, known as Otitis Media or Otitis Media with effusion. Nine out of 10 children (90%) will experience ear infections with upper respiratory congestion which causes a temporary hearing impairment, but only three of them (33%) will be diagnosed. Your child is hearing sounds; however, they are muffled as if he is listening to speech under water. If you question your child’s hearing ability, report it or visit to your health care provider.

From birth to six months, your child will try to imitate a few of the sounds he hears in speech.  When he coos or makes sounds, repeat the sounds that he makes, as this reinforces his communication attempts.  He learns that he coos and you coo back, which is the first step in conversing.  Turn taking is very important in conversation.

When your child becomes a toddler, he will hear new sounds and look to you for answers.  This is a great time to use auditory cues. You ask, “What’s that sound? Is it the phone ringing?  It’s the phone.”  Imitate the sound, and your toddler responds, “Phone.” Use the sounds you hear in your environment (e.g. birds, cars, planes, bells) besides simple songs, nursery rhymes and finger plays to increase your child’s awareness of sound.  These are language learning opportunities. The easiest way to make your baby or toddler enjoy using his auditory sense is for you to make the sounds instead of using the animal’s name while singing Old MacDonald had a farm. Laugh and bring humor into your theatrical debut.

Hearing and speech are skills we take for granted, but nurture is as important as nature in determining your child’s success. You are your child’s first teacher, and you will be nurturing him as you talk and share sensory rich activities with him. This will give him a wide range of experiences to see, hear, smell, taste and touch.


babyKathy has 35 years of child development experience and is the author of the My Baby Compass series. She is certified by the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA), holding both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech and language pathology. She gained her clinical expertise working with children and adults with a full spectrum of communication disorders.