Spontaneous activity in the developing auditory system is required for neuronal survival as well as the refinement and maintenance of tonotopic maps in the brain. However, the mechanisms responsible for initiating auditory nerve firing in the absence of sound have not been determined. Here we show that supporting cells in the developing rat cochlea spontaneously release ATP, which causes nearby inner hair cells to depolarize and release glutamate, triggering discrete bursts of action potentials in primary auditory neurons. This endogenous, ATP-mediated signalling synchronizes the output of neighbouring inner hair cells, which may help refine tonotopic maps in the brain. Spontaneous ATP-dependent signalling rapidly subsides after the onset of hearing, thereby preventing this experience-independent activity from interfering with accurate encoding of sound. These data indicate that supporting cells in the organ of Corti initiate electrical activity in auditory nerves before hearing, pointing to an essential role for peripheral, non-sensory cells in the development of central auditory pathways.