Too Much Background Noise Can Limit Your Toddler's Ability to Learn

Portrait of a toddler drawing in the living room

Parents will do just about anything to ensure our children excel once they head off to school. Between flash cards, reading books, and purchasing the latest product that "promises results," moms and dads can drive themselves nuts for the sake of early education. (Hey, it's all for the cause, right?) Sadly, all of your efforts could be in vain. A new study that finds toddlers have a harder time learning language in homes with background noises could put a damper on those visions of early-acceptance at Harvard!


No matter how much we, as parents, think we have our bases covered in the milestone-achievement department, something as simple as extra noise can interfere with our kids' ability to absorb new info.

Published in the journal Child Development is a study that explores how common background noises -- including the car radio and adult conversations -- can negatively affect a toddler's ability to learn words. And, in case you're wondering, yes, the TV appears to be the biggest culprit.

Researchers monitored 40 toddlers (ranging from 22 to 30 months of age) and their ability to learn new words in both loud and quiet environments. In one scenario, scientists tasked little ones with listening to recordings of new words with low background noise, while another group had much louder background noise. In another scenario, the toddlers had to try to learn words on a screen, with and without background noise.

Needless to say, toddlers had a difficult time concentrating in an environment with a noisy background, and learned fewer words.

What's interesting, however, is that scientists who taught toddlers in a quiet environment before switching to one with more background noise still saw success in the learning department.

More from CafeMom: 5 Fun Ways to Develop Your Toddler's Language Skills

As a mommy of 2- and 1-year-old tots, I can't really say I'm surprised. And yet, I'm guilty of having background noise in my home.

Being a work-from-home mama, there are many times throughout the day when I rely on my friends at Sesame Street and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (Caillou can keep his a** at home) to not only entertain my kiddos, but also to teach them a thing or two.


I must say there have been some great educational benefits to leaving the TV on certain learning programs (one study notes Sesame Street has similar scholastic benefits to preschool). They help reiterate the things my husband and I try to teach our sons -- including the Spanish language, as all the recorded programs are en español. My 2-year-old can count up to six (in both English and Spanish) and continues to expand his phrases and vocabulary. My 1-year-old is also picking up some wonderful takeaways that allow him to achieve his milestones.

Both of my boys do not spend the bulk of their day sitting in front of the TV. They're active, and are notorious for playing with cars and blocks in their room, reading, and occasionally getting into something they shouldn't. Keeping the television on gives them the opportunity to both enjoy play while trying to learn something new.

More from CafeMom: 10 Ways to Trick Your Kids into Learning

With that said, however, I do agree with researchers about quiet time and how important it is to limit distractions.

There are certain times throughout the day where I like to read and practice flash cards with my kids. And rather than try to compete with the television, I turn it off -- for the sake of concentration. Plus, it's good to turn off the tube from time to time, as this world is noisy enough.

All in all, I think parents will likely appreciate this study, as it reiterates the importance of balance and moderation. As Rochelle Newman, associate director of the Maryland Language Science Center at the University of Maryland, mentions to NPR, "Children are going to go to school where there is a lot of noise. They're going to eventually have to learn to deal with that noise."

You aren't a horrible parent if you have a home with background noise. (If anyone lives in a household that sounds like a library on the regular, please invite me over. I need the peace and quiet.) All of us could be a little more mindful of distractions and how they come in play when we're trying to teach our kiddos.

(Don't beat yourself up.)



Image via unruh

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