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Typical Auditory Development

Playing Mozart for your unborn child may or may not help her score better on her SATs. Scientists have observed, however, that typically developing babies have access to sounds and voices while in the womb. (Werner) This knowledge underscores the urgent need for early identification of children with hearing loss.

Learning how children develop the ability to understand spoken language and know how those skills can be expanded and refined can empower us to accelerate the development of spoken language for students with hearing loss.

Auditory Skills Development: In Utero through 7 Years

Although auditory development is thought to begin in the third trimester of a pregnancy, not until after birth is an infant exposed to the full range of sound due to the filtering effect of the mother’s body. After birth, a newborn does not hear at the same level (0-20 dBHL)  as adults (Tharpe & Ashmead) and  is less aware of frequency changes, especially in higher frequency sounds. This means that speech will not be heard clearly for an infant in the first six months of life.

Six months after birth, an infant has a 15-20 dB hearing deficit, or ‘slight’ hearing loss. In the presence of background noise, the six-month-old infant will still have difficulty detecting a tone. This decreased ability to listen in noise will continue until a child is 6 to 8 years old.

Auditory perception is further refined during early childhood. Werner (2007) states, “It is clear that throughout the preschool and early school years, children continue to learn about the acoustic details in the sounds they hear and to extend their ability to distinguish sounds in a variety of listening conditions.”

By 8 or 9 years of age, a typically developing child’s hearing level and ability to hear phonemes in a variety of environments are similar to that of adults.

At 12 years of age, however, children can demonstrate poorer speech perception than adults. (Hazan & Barrett)

More details about auditory development in infancy and childhood is shown in the table below.

Auditory development, even with an intact hearing system, is an extended and perhaps highly individualized process. It is also an essential set of abilities for those who communicate with their world using spoken language.

Developmental Milestones for Listening

Adapted from Cole & Flexler and Owens


Auditory Milestones

by 4 months
  • • shows preference for variable intonation (“motherese”) over monotone
  • • able to discriminate between high and low frequency sounds in a quiet setting
by 7 months
  • •  demonstrates awareness of environmental sounds
  • •  reacts to changes in tone of voice
  • •  begins to localize with head turning
  • •  shows auditory memory for familiar voices
  • •  responds to own name and names of family members

by 12 months

  • • follows verbal commands
  • • understands the names of familiar objects

by 24 months

  • • follows directions with two critical elements
  • • independently seeks the source of a sound

by 36 months

  • • verbally identifies a sound
  • • sings complete songs from memory

by 4 years

  • • developing sustained auditory attention over longer periods of time
  • • learns from overhearing (uses words/phrases not directly taught

by 7 years

  • • higher level auditory skills are largely developed, including selective attention, understanding speech with a heavy accent and following conversations


Resources for Auditory Development



Auditory Learning Guide

Auditory Development Scale: 0-6 years

CID – Central Institute for the Deaf Free online courses



Learning to Listen Sounds Kit

CAST – Contrasts for Auditory and Speech Training

SPICE – Speech Perception Instructional Curriculum & Evaluation

SPICE to Life Auditory Learning Curriculum


Cole, EB, Flexer, C. 2011 Children with hearing loss: Developing listening and talking (2nd ed.) San Diego CA: Plural

Hazan V, Barrett S. The development of phonemic categorization in children aged 6-12. Journal of Phonetics 2000;28:377-396.

Owens, RE. 2012. Language development: An introduction (8th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Tharpe AM, Ashmead DH. 2001 A longitudinal investigation of infant auditory sensitivity. American Journal of Audiology 2001; 10:104-112.

Werner, LA. 2007 Issues in Human Auditory Development. Journal of Communication Disorders. 2007;40(4): 275-283.


Posted August 2019. This information was authored by Julia West, teacher of the deaf/hard of hearing who has taught students with hearing loss in private and public schools for over 20 years. She is co-author of the CID SPICE for Life Auditory Learning Curriculum and authors the Listening and Self-Advocacy sections of the Teacher Tools e-Magazine.