When Can Babies Hear in the Womb?

As your pregnancy progresses, it is only natural that you may start talking to your baby, singing lullabies, and even asking your spouse to talk to your belly. But, many moms wonder if all this chatter is done in vain or even a little crazy. After all, when can your baby actually hear you?

Baby hearing sounds in the womb
 Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

How Baby's Hearing Develops

Six Weeks

Beginning at around six weeks into the pregnancy, the cells inside of your little peanut's developing head are already starting to arrange themselves into unique tissues that will eventually be her brain, face, ears, eyes and nose. And, even though you cannot see your baby's ears yet during an ultrasound, the intricate arrangement of tubes that make up the inner ears are starting to develop.

Nine Weeks

At nine weeks there will be small indentations on the sides of your baby's neck that represent her future ears. Even though they are not in the right place, they will gradually move into the correct location. From there, they will become tiny, curled up, little ears that you will likely adore once your baby is born.

Your baby's ears continue to develop throughout the first and second trimester. For instance, the inner ear will connect with neurons in the brain that are responsible for processing sounds. Meanwhile, the tiny little bones in the middle ear, which sense the vibration of sound waves will also begin to form.

16 Weeks

By around 16 weeks of pregnancy, it is very likely that these structures in your baby's ears are formed enough that your baby may even be able to start detecting some sounds.

In fact, some of the first sounds your baby will hear include the beat of your heart, the gurgle in your stomach and the sound of air entering and leaving your lungs when you breathe. And as your baby's hearing continues to develop, she will begin to hear more and more of the world outside of the womb.

24 Weeks

Amazingly, by 24 weeks, research has shown that many babies will turn their heads in response to voices and other noises.

Keep in mind too, that what you hear outside of the womb is not the same as what your baby is hearing on the inside. Remember, there is amniotic fluid surrounding her as well as all the layers of your body, so even though your baby's ears are fully developed, the sounds that she hears in utero are muffled. There is no air to carry the sound.

Hear What They Hear

If you want to imagine what it might be like for your baby, you and your partner can put your hands over your mouths and try to hold a conversation. That muffled conversation is what people talking outside of the womb sound like to a baby. What's more, you may notice during your muffled conversation with your spouse that you may be able to make out tones and pitches of his or her sentences but you might not be able to understand all the words. This is what it is like for your baby in utero. In fact, recordings taken in the uterus reveal that noises outside the womb are muted by about half.

You also could try singing a song with your mouth covered. It's likely that you will hear the tune but not the lyrics. Of course, the louder the sound, the more likely your baby will be able to hear it especially things like your dog barking, a train passing close by, a siren blaring, and so on. But don't worry about these loud sounds. The good thing about them is that your baby's hearing will not be damaged by them, but as an added benefit your baby is less likely to be started by them after she is born either.

What Baby Hears Most

Not surprisingly, the clearest voice your baby will be able to hear is yours while you are pregnant. The reason for this is simple. While most of the sounds your baby hears are transmitted through the air and then through your uterus, by contrast, your voice reverberates through your body and your bones. This process then amplifies it for your baby.

What's more, research has shown that your baby's heart rate will increase when she hears your voice, meaning she is more alert when you are speaking. As a result, it is a great idea to talk to your growing belly. You also can read books and sing lullabies.

In fact, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that babies hear what their moms say and recognize these words after birth. Interestingly, the study also found that babies can detect subtle changes and process complex information.

During the study, the researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland looked at 33 expectant mothers and examined their babies after birth. While pregnant, 17 of the mothers listened to a CD at a high volume with made-up words said different ways and with different pitches from week 29 to birth. Overall, the moms and their babies heard the nonsense words about 50 to 71 times.

Then, following their births, the researchers tested all 33 babies for normal hearing and then performed an EEG brain scan to see how the newborns responded to the made-up words. For the babies that heard the nonsense words while in utero, their brain activity picked up when those words were played. Meanwhile, the babies who did not hear the CD did not react much. The researchers concluded that an unborn baby can learn and remember just as well as a newborn. Consequently, they believe it may be worthwhile to expose babies to more sounds before they are born.

Loud Sounds and Developing Babies

Most moms are concerned that very loud sounds will damage their baby's hearing such as a loud concert or a noisy night out with friends. In most cases, these one-time instances will not impact your baby's hearing. However, it is a good idea to carry on with sounds of normal life as much as possible.

While the effects of prolonged noise on hearing loss are not well-known, noise does have the possibility to cause some developmental damage or hearing loss in a growing baby when it is loud, prolonged and repeated. For instance, working in a noisy factory for eight or more hours per day might be enough noise to impact a baby's hearing to some degree. As a result, the best advice is to ask your boss if you could transfer temporarily to a quieter place to work at least until the baby is born.

Bonding with Your Bump

You may have heard that playing classical music while you are pregnant will boost your baby's IQ and build a solid foundation for her educational future. But, there is no research to support these theories. Still, there is no harm in playing some soft music now and again for your developing baby, especially if you enjoy it and it helps you relax.

Keep in mind that researchers have discovered that babies tend to react to words and sounds that they heard throughout the third trimester of the pregnancy in comparison to those they never heard during pregnancy. So, this is the perfect time for you to talk with growing belly bump and to encourage your spouse to do so too.

You also can read books and sing soft lullabies. All of these things not only allow you and your partner to stimulate and support your growing baby's hearing but also allow you both to bond with your unborn baby.

Hearing in Infancy

Statistics indicate that about one to three of every 1,000 babies will be born with hearing loss. While there are any number of reasons for this, some of the more common causes include premature delivery, high bilirubin numbers, certain medications, trauma, and family history.

After your baby is born, you can monitor her hearing as she grows by being aware of what to expect in terms of developmental milestones. For instance, understanding what is considered normal and what is not will help you know when to talk with your baby's pediatrician.

Here are some common guidelines based on your baby's age.

  • Birth to three months your baby should react to loud noises, recognize your voice, coo, calm down when you talk to them and have different types of cries for different needs.
  • From four months to six months your baby should track you with her eyes, notice noise-making toys, respond to changes in your tone of voice, notice music and laugh.
  • From seven months to a year, your baby should turn in the direction of sounds, listen when you are talking to them, understand a few words, babble and communicate by waving or holding up their arms.

A Word from Verywell

Knowing that your baby can hear what you say - or sing - should be encouraging. After all, it gives you an excuse to say your thoughts about the nursery color and different baby items out loud. What's more, talking to your growing baby bump is actually beneficial for your baby. So, keep on chatting away even when the people in the grocery store turn and look. You are helping support your growing baby's hearing development.

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Article Sources
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  5. Fruhholz S, Belin P. The Oxford Handbook of Voice Perception. Oxford University Press. 2018.

  6. Partanen E, Kujala T, Näätänen R, Liitola A, Sambeth A, Huotilainen M. Learning-induced neural plasticity of speech processing before birth. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2013;(110)37:15145-50. doi:10.1073/pnas.1302159110

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reproductive health and the workplace. October 2019.

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Additional Reading
  • Partanen, Eino. "Learning-induced Neural Plasticity of Speech Processing Before Birth." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 2013. https://www.pnas.org/content/110/37/15145