Babies and toddlers listen differently to the world and too much sound can affect their ability to learn.
For most adults, it doesn’t take effort to filter out sounds we don’t want to pay attention to and focusing on the ones we do (like someone speaking when there’s light/moderate background music playing). It’s something our brains have learned to do over time. By the age of 10, a child’s hearing is comparable to an adult. Babies, on the other hand, don’t have this ability so it’s a constant cacophony of sounds.
Sound can attract a child’s attention just as it can distract them.
As parents/caretakers, we have to consider this a couple different ways. We don’t notice every day sounds because it’s so normal our brain just filters it out. For a young child, however, sounds can be the equivalent of being at an amusement park constantly.
I think part of why young toddlers can’t focus on anything for long is because they notice so many sounds. When my son was 1 he would run across the house when he heard the washing machine, blender, or Soda Stream. Every little sound meant something to him – that there was something interesting going on that he wanted to see or be apart of. A lot of babies go through a phase where they notice every airplane – even ones where you really have to focus to hear it.
Sound may also contribute to an infant becoming overstimulated (especially when tired). How would you feel if you were mentally and physically exhausted but had to watch a loud movie or sit in a noisy restaurant? Sometimes the brain can’t take a rest until the ears are able to take a rest, too.
Babies and toddlers need quiet to learn.
It takes effort for a baby to focus on you. So, the big takeaway is that young children need a quieter environment to learn – especially to learn language. Even a one-month old baby can hear the difference between a “p” and “b” sound (a very subtle difference) if the background is quiet enough. Researchers at the University of Washington concluded background noise (including television) can have a negative affect on language development:
“The practical lesson from this research is, if you are talking to a baby or reading her a story, background noise can be a problem. Turn off the television or radio.”
Tips to help keep your environment quiet enough to help baby’s learning
- If you have to raise your voice for your baby or toddler to hear you, the background noise is probably too loud.
- Find time for one-on-one interactions where you can turn off other noise (tv, music, etc)
- Turn down (or off) the tv, radio, music, and electronic toys when you aren’t using them.
- If you’re going to listen to music, have it be the main activity. Sing, do hand motions, bang on drums.
- If you’re playing with a loud or distracting toy, wait til after the toy’s sound has stopped so your baby can focus on what you’re saying.
- Be face-to-face (at their level physically) so they can watch your face. Seeing your facial expressions and lip and mouth movement may help them be less distracted by background noise.
- Use visual cues to help your child understand what you are saying. These can be hand gestures like pointing, holding an object as you talk about it, demonstrating how you use something, or sign language. All of this helps block out distractions.
If you start this now, you’re going to be setting up your child for better learning for years. Background noise can affect children of all ages – even by background noise in school.