Development of Fetal Hearing
Peter Hepper & Sara Shahidullah
Previous research has revealed that the human fetus responds to sound, but to date there has been little systematic investigation of the development of fetal hearing. The development of fetal behavioral responsiveness to pure tone auditory stimuli (100 Hz, 250 Hz, 500 Hz, 1000 Hz, and 3000 Hz) was examined from 19 to 35 weeks of gestational age. Stimuli were presented by a loudspeaker placed on the maternal abdomen and the fetus’s response, a movement, recorded by ultrasound. The fetus responded first to the 500 Hz tone, where the first response was observed at 19 weeks of gestational age. The range of frequencies responded to expanded first downwards to lower frequencies, 100 Hz and 250 Hz, and then upwards to higher frequencies, 1000 Hz and 3000 Hz. At 27 weeks of gestational age, 96% of fetuses responded to the 250 Hz and 500 Hz tones but none responded to the 1000 Hz and 3000 Hz tones. Responsiveness to 1000 Hz and 3000 Hz tones was observed in all fetuses at 33 and 35 weeks of gestational age, respectively. For all frequencies there was a large decrease (20-30 dB) in the intensity level required to elicit a response as the fetus matured. The observed pattern of behavioral responsiveness reflects underlying maturation of the auditory system. The sensitivity of the fetus to sounds in the low frequency range may promote language acquisition and result in increased susceptibility to auditory system damage arising from exposure to intense low frequency sounds.