Does Background Noise Interfere With Language Development?

May 7, 2021 | Development

As a parent, you already know that the days are long but the years are short. Let’s face it, during those long days it is sometimes comforting to watch a good morning show or make breakfast while grooving to Spotify. So if you are playing with your child while catching up on the latest episode of The Bachelor, it is important to remember that ‘every rose has its thorn.’ Yes, it’s true…as much as tv can help those long days pass, it is important to be aware that the quantity and volume of background noise has been found to have adverse effects on the development of language skills in young children. But the truth is that background noise is everywhere and in many environments can not be minimized. On the other hand, we are in control of certain background noise exposures that we allow in our homes.

 

WHAT IS BACKGROUND NOISE?

Background noise can be anything from TV and music, to loud conversations between adults, a chatty sibling, noisy toys, outside sirens, and even dogs barking. It is inevitable that infants and young children are going to be exposed to noise…it is just part of life. However, research shows that the environments children are in, including how much and what kinds of stimulation they are exposed to, may influence what and how they learn new words and concepts.  A new study has found that the presence of background noise in the home makes it more difficult for toddlers to learn new words.  Let’s take a deeper look into background television and music, and the impact that they may have on your child’s language learning. 

 

BACKGROUND TV

As a new mom, I can remember being home, breastfeeding in the recliner, and usually…watching a show (sigh). The tv made the house feel more lively and often took my mind off of being in the “newborn baby grind”. I was very well versed in screen time recommendations but never gave much thought to having the television on in the background (for a good chunk of the day). Then I came across this study stating that background television can impact language development. EEK! I should have known this as an SLP but I was a sleep-deprived, new mom, who was primarily focused on pumping and sleeping. One statistic from the study that rocked me showed that American children under 24 months are exposed to an average of 5.5 hours of background TV per day (Lapierre et al., 2012). Ok, this can’t be good. At this point, I started researching the impact that background television has on children and found several research studies with similar conclusions. Here are some of the evidence-based adverse effects of exposing a baby or young child to too much background television. Unfortunately, there are no known positives to having background tv on (remember background tv is different from actively watching a show)

 

CONS: RESEARCH STUDIES HAVE SHOWN THAT WHEN BACKGROUND TELEVISION IS PRESENT….

  • Parents have been observed to communicate with their children less. 
  • Parent-child interactions are shorter and less frequent. 
  • Children show more difficulty focusing on activities and play.
  • There is often a decrease in the duration of how long a child will engage in ‘focused play’.
  • Children who were exposed to constant “adult-directed television” (either direct tv or background noise tv) and having lower executive function scores, which can impact memory, self-control, and attention.
  • Background noise makes it more difficult for a baby to localize where a sound or voice is coming from thus making it more difficult for a baby to focus. 

 

BACKGROUND MUSIC

I am a music lover and so are my kids. Therefore, background music is a little more difficult for me to reduce in my home. I love listening to Top Country as I cook, Hits One as I clean the house, and reggae on Sunday morning as we eat breakfast. And as much as I love music, my children love it even more. My children consistently ask Alexa, who has become like a member of the family,  to play Moana, Frozen, and Ninjago theme songs as we go through the day. Through this research on background noise, I found that background music has not been as well studied. Unfortunately, research studies stating that “background noise” can have negative impacts on a child’s language learning are considering both tv, music, and other sources of environmental background noises. Although there are more studies specifically about background television, background music is another source of concern. Dr. Kristy Goodwin, explains how background music is known to affect attention, arousal, and alter one’s mood, therefore it can help or hinder a child while engaging in a task. 

 

PROS: BACKGROUND MUSIC HAS BEEN FOUND TO…

  • Improve a child’s language, social, emotional, memory, and motor skills.
  • Alter babies’ moods and make them “happier”. (Think the arousal-mood-hypothesis showing that background music can potentially benefit learning outcomes.)
  • Improve attention and concentration (remember the Mozart effect?)
  • Soft zen-like music can be calming to babies.

 

CONS: BACKGROUND MUSIC HAS BEEN FOUND TO…

  • Decrease a child’s attention to a play task with background music present. (contrary to the Mozart Effect)
  • Music that is too intense (overstimulating) or contains explicit lyrics may have a negative impact on a child’s emotions.
  • Background music has been shown to have negative effects on memory tasks in young children.

 

THE TAKEAWAY

As you can see, many of the pros and cons are contradicting, so let’s take all of this information into consideration and balance it with reality. It is nearly impossible to filter out all background noise for your child. It is also impractical to tell parents that you can never have the tv on or listen to music. That would never work in my home and I assume it wouldn’t be ideal for other homes either. So instead of worrying about ways to stop all the noise, think about times in your day when you can carve out some quality quiet time to talk and play with your baby or toddler. We explain all about this as well as how to be intentional when talking and playing with your little one during those quiet moments in our online courses.

So here is the takeaway… this information is being shared to raise awareness and make parents mindful of minimizing background noise when possible. It is all about moderation and using good judgment. If your little one is going to listen to music, then listen, sing and engage with the song! Additionally, you could play music when you are not actively talking or teaching your child a new skill.  If you are going to teach your child new words or concepts, turn off the tv and music so they can focus completely on you, without any competing distractions. 

 

 

*Due to the large number of references used to write this article, references are available upon request.

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We love everything about our work, but we're most excited about guiding parents with practical tips to integrate speech and language techniques into their everyday routines. We'd be honored to partner with you, too!

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