Â How Babies Develop Hearing – the Psychology of sound
The first year of a baby’s life is the most important in terms of development, and it’s a fascinating time to learn about when considering the psychological implications of how our little ones understand and interpret the world around them. Hearing is the second of the five senses that your child will develop, and one ofÂ the most important for communicationÂ – so hopefully, this guide should give you a better understanding of how hearing develops, and how our children learn to react to different sounds in their environment!
What a foetus hears
By inserting a small hydrophone into the uterus of a pregnant woman, researchers have found that even in calm, quiet environments the background noise in the womb is similar to that of a house or apartment. Common sounds included whooshing noises as the blood moves through adjacent vessels, gurgling from the stomach, and of course the heartbeat of the mother. The foetus can also hear the mother’s speech, and will start tuning in to the voice, language and intonation – a feat that will have an impressive bonding effect between mother and baby once the child is born.
A number of studies have been carried out on foetuses to find out exactly how they interpret sound while in the safety of the womb. We can detect reactions in the third trimester by monitoring the heartbeat under different conditions. This allows us not only to discover when the baby is agitated – for example by sudden noises – but also to find out what makes them most comfortable and relaxed. Tone is particularly important at this time; studies have found that foetuses respond to changes in pitch when music is playing, and are happier when they hear their mother speaking her everyday language rather than a foreign dialect with unfamiliar intonations.
While your baby will already have well-functioning ears at birth, they’ll continue to develop for the first six months, and you might notice in that time that your baby’s preferences change. The reason for this is that they can hear a wider range of frequencies, and may be more susceptible to loud noises than they were before. The temporal lobe is also fully developing in this time, which is the part of the brain responsible for understanding sound, language and a whole host of other sensory stimuli – which is why you might find it a chore to get them to settle down in this time!
After around six months, your baby will have learned to detect where sounds are coming from, and within a year will be able to recognise and try to join in with favourite songs.
Your baby has a lot to learn in this first year – as well as the continued growth of many sensory organs, they’ll also be trying to work out how to derive meaning from the sensory input around them. This can sometimes result in a little anxiety, but babies are well-prepared for this kind of sensory stimuli in their formative years, and you shouldn’t worry unduly as they adapt to the world around them.
Sound’s biggest role in a baby’s development is to help with language learning. Babies have an innate ability to learn languages, and in fact are more likely to be bilingual if they start hearing multiple languages from birth.
Even before they can work out the meaning of speech, babies can use the intonation to convey the same message. A study in 2009 found that babies in different countries have different cries, as a result of the different tones used between languages – for example in France, where native speakers end most sentences on a raising note, fond that babies did the same when crying out, while in Germany where speakers do the opposite, babies similarly dropped the pitch of their cries toward the end of each utterance.
Psychologists have even found that babies may start to assign emotions to sounds from a very early age -Â while the generally agreed time for understanding complex emotions is about six to eight months, studies by psycholinguists and neurologists have shown that the squeaks, growls and babbles that a baby makes before that age are part of a learning process, during which time your child will start to assign certain sounds to certain emotions.
It’s impossible to know how every baby will react to a world rich with sounds, voices and languages, but by watching and spending time with your baby you’ll soon be able to learn how they’re feeling based on the type of cry they give and the sounds they make. Equally, your own tone of voice will communicate a lot to them before they can even begin to understand what you’re saying – so you can rest assured that your baby is wired to understand you when you comfort and play with them.
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