Busting the Myth: How Much Can Newborns Really Hear?

Posted on May 5th, 2022 by

Written by Emmie, Emma, Kieran, and Logann


Baby wearing headphones

Atchoo420, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever seen expecting mothers talking to their baby? Maybe even putting headphones playing Mozart melodies on their pregnant belly? Oftentimes they do this so that their baby recognizes their voice once they are born. Some believe that by listening to Mozart their baby will be smarter. However, often misinformation is spread about  what babies can actually hear when they are born. There is a great deal of information on what babies can and can’t hear, but much of it is not available directly to the parent. In efforts to help parents better understand what their babies can and cannot hear when they are born, researchers have found ways to conduct hearing screenings to see how well their infant can hear. Through this hearing screening, parents are able to know if their baby is going to be deaf, have some deafness, or no deafness at all. If the screening shows that the infant is deaf, or has partial deafness, specific early intervention measures can be taken to help the baby develop good language development and communication . 

Beginning at 18 weeks gestation, babies are able to hear their mother’s heartbeat (Shu n.pag). Following those first experiences with hearing, a baby will be able to discern between mother’s heartbeat, her digestive system and the sounds of her voice/other voices at around 27 weeks gestation (Shu n.pag). Once a baby is born, they are able to hear these sounds more clearly. Babies can discern between different voices that are familiar or unknown to them. Newborn babies are able to recognize familiar voices they may have heard in utero as well as familiar songs or tunes they may have experienced in the womb (Hamilton). Although sounds in the womb are muffled, babies are able to recognize these sounds and differentiate between them by 7 months (Hamilton). They react with their own sounds based on the emotion they hear in words spoken to them. Ultimately, a newborn baby can hear fairly well but not perfectly because the middle ear of the baby may still be full of amniotic fluid which can cause hearing to sound especially muffled (Yoshinaga-Itano). 

The typical screening process for newborns starts before the newborn is 1 month old. Many parents will have their newborn screened while in the hospital after birth or at an early checkup (Lewsley). The two standard methods for the hearing screening process are through otoacoustic emissions (OAE), or automated auditory brainstem response (AABR). Both of these methods are harmless to the newborn. The OAE method doesn’t take more than a few minutes to complete; while the AABR method can take anywhere from 1-3 hours. They can both be completed when the newborn is awake or asleep. The OAE method tests the ability of the newborn ear’s response to sounds, usually through visual cues that the newborn is responding; while the AABR method tests the newborn’s brain responses to sound through the use of electrodes that are placed near the ears and forehead. The otoacoustic emissions method is done by inserting a small earpiece, similar to an earbud, into both of the newborn’s ears. These earpieces will make a small clicking sound which will stimulate the cochlea. The same earpieces are used in the AABR method, as well as the electrodes, to measure brain activity in response to the sounds. 

Clearly, there is plenty of information out there  about the auditory abilities of newborn babies. Unfortunately, this information can be overwhelming, riddled with myths, and inaccessible to the people who need it the most; parents. A parent’s ability to understand their newborn’s auditory functioning is developmentally important and can help guide parents toward the best way to engage with their child, which is why this information must be made accessible and clear for new parents (Lewsley). This can be done most effectively through more comprehensive parent education and increased transparency in the medical field about newborn auditory screening. 

Expecting parents are flooded with information about their newborns, including information about their baby’s developing senses. This information is extremely overwhelming and can lead to confusion about what is and isn’t important for nurturing one’s child. We propose that providing straightforward and necessary information about newborn hearing abilities in the context of a parent class or in the hospital is a great starting point for increasing parental knowledge about their child’s ears. With this information accessible, parents can perform informal hearing tests at home and introduce their child to sound in many creative ways (Lewsley). A lack of transparency regarding auditory testing at the doctor can add to the sense of confusion among parents. Clearly, a newborn’s hearing is thoroughly tested soon after birth as well as periodically throughout early childhood, but how it is tested and the results are rarely explained to parents. Rather than making guesses about what their new infants can and can’t hear, parents should be made aware of the ways in which their child will hear differently as it grows older. Access to all of this information will not only make parents more knowledgeable, it will also reduce the spread of misinformation about newborn auditory capabilities. 



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Hamilton, J. (2010, March 24). Infants recognize voices, emotions by 7 months. NPR. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125123354 

Hearing screening programs. Minnesota Department of Health. (2022, January 26). Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.health.state.mn.us/people/childrenyouth/ctc/hearingscreen/programs.html 

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