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Your baby's hearing development

Hearing Loss

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, a time to raise awareness, knowledge, and understanding of the various forms of communication disorders and the management available. As a Speech and Language Therapist, I find it valuable for people to understand the importance of hearing development in babies, what parents can expect in terms of development and when to seek professional help. I hope that this will not only be valuable to parents but to all family and friends of your babies.

Author: Lindi Bester, Speech and Language therapist in private practice and a member of the Nubabi expert team.

In order for a child to learn language and develop speech skills, they need adequate hearing abilities. Hearing development starts from before birth and continues to develop as your little one is exposed to different sounds in their everyday environment.

As adults, we often take our senses for granted. However, when your baby wakes from a loud bark of the neighbour’s dog, looks toward the whistle of a boiling kettle or points in the direction of the soft singing of a bird, you cannot help to fine tune your hearing. As your baby grows he/she will take in huge amounts of information from his/her environment through hearing.

Hearing development in babies and toddlers

Ellen A. Rhoades who is known for her publications in family-centred early intervention in hearing loss, compiled a hearing developmental scale using various existing scales of children with normal hearing. This scale of hearing behaviours shows the average development of hearing in most healthy full-term babies. Your baby might be more advanced and achieve skills earlier in the indicated age range or show some of these behaviours when he/she reaches the upper age in the age range.

You can expect the see the following behaviours in your newborn:

  • Responds to familiar noises and will recognise and prefer his/her parents’ voices
  • Shows sensitivity to a wide range of sounds, and different frequencies will have different effects on your baby
  • Startles in response to sudden loud noises
  • When feeding, starts or stops sucking in response to sound

Between 3 and 6 months hearing development will include:

  • Shows awareness of a speaker and will localise sounds by looking in the direction of the speaker
  • Awakes or quiets to the sound of a familiar voice
  • Fascinated by his/her own voice and practices making sounds in response to your voice
  • Attends to his/her own name and also listens to music

Between 6 and 12 months:

  • Turns his/her head and shoulders toward familiar sounds, even without seeing the source of the sound
  • Recognises familiar sounds such as the beep of the microwave, a barking dog, or a knocking at the door
  • By 9 months your baby will know the meaning of some words, e.g. she will look at her daddy when named
  • Enjoys games like pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo.
  • Shows an increase of a “listening attitude” to conversation
  • Understands common words such as “bye-bye,” “no,” “shoe,” or “milk”
  • Begins to respond to simple requests when accompanied with a gesture, such as “Come here”

Between 12 and 18 months:

  • Enjoys listening to sounds and words
  • Responds appropriately to “no”
  • His/her imitations of sounds will indicate that he/she can hear the sounds and match them with his/her own sound production by copying the sounds
  • Responds to verbal requests such as giving a toy on request
  • Understands an assortment of verbs such as “drink”, “go”, “come”, “give”
  • Shows an interest in environmental noises outside of his/her immediate surroundings
  • Recognises his/her favourite song and he/she may even try to join in
  • Begins to recognize 10 or more objects when he/she hears the names of these items
  • Understands about 50 words and his/her understanding of spoken words will increase by at least one new word a week
  • At some point in this period, your baby will say his/her first word! Look out for this exciting milestone

Between 18 and 24 months:

  • Understands about 150-200 words and simple sentences.
  • Begins to follow directions and short series of commands such as “Kiss the baby”
  • Points to own eye, nose, ears, etc. (body parts) when named
  • Points to objects when named
  • Comprehension of spoken words begins to increase by at least several new words per day.
  • Listens to simple stories, songs, and rhymes and enjoys being read to

Between 24 and 30 months:

  • Shows interest in the sounds of radio or TV commercials.
  • Understands and answers simple “wh” questions, e.g., “Where is your –?”
  • Understands increasing number of words, 300 – 500 words
  • Makes appropriate differentiations between talking loudly and talking softly

Between 30 and 36 months:

  • Enjoys listening to simple familiar stories read from a picture book for longer periods of time.
  • Reacts to pleasurable sounds by going to look or by making someone aware of it
  • Your baby enjoys hearing and listening to familiar and novel songs
  • Understands 500 - 1500 words.
  • Follows a series of two related commands, e.g., “Pick up the ball and give it to me.”
  • Listens enthusiastically to stories and will ask for her favourite one over and over again
  • Begins to match simple sound sounds and tones

Signs of hearing loss in babies

According to the South African Speech, Language and Hearing Association (SASLHA), the following signs could indicate a possible hearing loss in your baby:

  • Birth to 3 months: My baby does not startle to sudden loud sounds.
  • 3 to 6 months: My baby does not respond to my voice.
  • My baby does not enjoy rattles or other noise making toys.
  • 6 to 12 months: My baby does not respond to his or her name.
  • 12 to 18 months: My baby cannot imitate simple words or sounds.
  • My baby cannot point to familiar objects when asked.
  • 2 years: My baby hasn’t started talking yet.
  • My child became silent and stopped babbling.

What to do if you suspect a hearing loss in your baby

If your child shows any of the signs as indicated at the specific ages above, he/she might need a hearing assessment. If you suspect a hearing loss, consult an Audiologist as soon as possible. An Audiologist is professionally trained to identify, assess and manage impaired hearing in babies, children, and adults. Hearing is very important for the development of speech, language, communication skills, and learning and therefore early detection of hearing problems is critical. Even a very slight hearing loss can have an impact on a child’s development and daily life. Hearing loss is often treatable and the earlier the hearing loss is identified, the more likely the child will develop speech and language skills without a delay.

Audiologists can be found in private practices, hospitals, schools, and universities.

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