Auditory brain development in premature infants: The importance of early experience


Erin McMahon,Pia Wintermark,and Amir Lahav


Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1252(1):17-24 · April 2012


Preterm infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) often close their eyes in response to bright lights, but they cannot close their ears in response to loud sounds. The sudden transition from the womb to the overly noisy world of the NICU increases the vulnerability of these high-risk newborns. There is a growing concern that the excess noise typically experienced by NICU infants disrupts their growth and development, putting them at risk for hearing, language, and cognitive disabilities. Preterm neonates are especially sensitive to noise because their auditory system is at a critical period of neurodevelopment, and they are no longer shielded by maternal tissue. This paper discusses the developmental milestones of the auditory system and suggests ways to enhance the quality control and type of sounds delivered to NICU infants. We argue that positive auditory experience is essential for early brain maturation and may be a contributing factor for healthy neurodevelopment. Further research is needed to optimize the hospital environment for preterm newborns and to increase their potential to develop into healthy children.