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Published on March 19, 2016

Keep the noise down to help tots tune in to languageKeep the noise down to help tots tune in to language

Have a toddler at home? Turn down the volume.

TV shows and other sounds that are background noise to adults can be an obstacle for children learning language. What children hear in a noisy environment is not the same as what adults hear, experts say.

“The way the brain processes sounds is different for children and adults,” said Leif Norenberg, MD, a pediatrician with Briarpatch Pediatrics in Sandwich and Yarmouthport. “The young brain has trouble filtering the key messages we’re trying to get to them. The younger they are, the tougher it is for them to filter out the noise.

“Young children have a hard time figuring out what’s background noise and what’s real information, and figuring out what sounds are important and what sounds aren’t.”

Noisy surroundings are a challenge because “young children learn language from hearing it,” Dr. Rochelle Newman of the University of Maryland told the Associated Press. “They have a greater need for understanding speech around them but at the same time they’re less equipped to deal with it.”

One of the greatest difficulties for a tot trying to listen is other voices in the background, whether they come from a TV, video game or an unrelated conversation, according to a researcher who presented her findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s recent annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Lori Leibold, Ph.D., director of the Center for Hearing Research and Human Auditory Development Laboratory at Boys Town National Research Hospital, gave a talk titled “Learning to Hear: Understanding Speech in Noise from Infancy to Adolescence.”

Her research, according to a Boys Town press release, shows that “children have more difficulty than adults when listening to speech in the presence of competing background sounds, particularly when the background sounds are also speech. One surprising finding from Dr. Leibold’s program of research is that the ability to hear and understand speech in the presence of other people talking remains immature into the adolescent years.”

According to her research, “extensive listening experience and neural maturation are required for children to master the perceptual skills required to hear and understand speech in noisy environments.”

“Their hearing may be fine but their processing is different,” said Dr. Norenberg. “They can’t fill in the blanks when a few words are missed when a dog barks or there’s a loud TV show.

“We need to encourage people to have conversations with their babies. That simple dialogue is so important.”

But parents need to be mindful of the setting for that training. What is stimulating for an adult can be overwhelming for a young child.

“It’s very challenging in this noisy day and age,” Dr. Norenberg said. “The big first step is to turn off the TV when we’re not really watching it. Kids watching TV is not so much the issue as that it’s often on in the background and the quality of child-parent interaction is decreased.”

Dr. Norenberg and other experts offered these tips to make sure you’re doing all you can to help your young child learn language:

Turn off the TV and other electronics on in the background. Even the lyrics from a radio can be distracting.

  • Speak slowly, clearly and in a natural voice. Make eye contact.
  • If there is background noise, make sure the child can see your face. Part of how children learn language is by watching mouth movements.
  • If the child doesn’t understand, repeat what you said. Use simpler words, if possible.