How Do I Protect My Child’s Hearing?

We live in a world filled with all sorts of sounds and with more and more machines entering our habitat, they bring more sound into our environment. So how do you protect your child’s hearing?

According to John Hopkins and other research, anything above 85-90dB has the potential to bring about hearing loss, particularly in children. Some protection against noise induced hearing loss can be given by covering a child’s ears, giving them ear plugs or avoiding noisy environments altogether.

To suffer a hearing loss is devastating, but when it could be avoided, that is even more catastrophic.

Protecting Hearing of Unborn Children

Do we need to protect our unborn baby’s hearing? Isn’t it already protected in the uterus? Can they really hear anyway? These are questions I have heard parents ask and I think one of the most misunderstood concepts is unborn babies and their ability to hear.

Our hearing comes online at 16 weeks inutero. That means by the time we are born, we have had 5 months of hearing. We are practically professionals! It is the first sense to develop and the last one to shut off when we die. How we process sound affects everything we do and how we learn.

Unborn babies have sensitive aural structures and do not possess the filtration systems that we develop once born. Young babies also don’t have these after birth so they don’t have the ability to filter out unwanted sounds or harsh sounds. Everything comes in at the same level.

When born, babies recognize voices of the family that has been around them while they were in the uterus. They recognize the inflection of voices, the ups and down of pitch in the tone of the voice and they recognize music. There are many studies that deal with the auditory system of the pre-born infant and how we need to protect this functional, but new system.

Should I put Headphones on My Pregnant Belly?

In the marketplace, we see lots of different systems claiming to make your baby smarter by placing headphones on the mother’s pregnant belly so the baby can hear the music.

If they can pick up the different inflection in voices without sound amplification, what makes you think that they need anything to hear music? Blasting music through a sound source connected to the mother’s belly is putting the baby’s auditory system at risk. It is playing at levels that are too loud and totally not necessary.

There are many benefits to playing music to your unborn child, but all of them can be achieved by having music in the background. No amplification is necessary and could actually be harmful.

So How Do I Protect the Hearing of my Unborn Baby?

Even though protected somewhat by the muffling amniotic fluid and the sac, it is still important for the mother not to venture into environments where there is loud sound. It can be harmful to both mother and baby and you can’t give the baby ear plugs, or cover their ears, so all that sound is going straight in.

  • Never put headphones on the mother’s pregnant belly
  • Control the volume of devices at home
  • Don’t stand next to loud sound sources

What Does a Hearing Loss Really Mean?

It means much more than we think.

Hearing Loss Affects Our Balance

Loss of hearing also means a compromise in balance. The vestibular system lives right next to the cochlea and there is a lot of information sharing between the auditory and vestibular systems.

Have you ever had a middle ear infection?

Your balance will be all over the place. The extra fluid affects your ability to process sound, and the brain relies on the processing of that sound and the vestibular system to work out where our body is in relation to space

Older people fall more because there is a decline in hearing ability as we age. That directly impacts on our ability to balance and stay upright, and so they tend to have more falls as they get older.

Hearing Loss Affects Our Ability to Communicate

A hearing loss of any kind makes communication exceedingly difficult. We can no longer hear the nuances in voices, or tone or intent as easily. It inhibits us in social situations because it is not easy to carry on a conversation.

Communication is key in connecting us to loved ones, making us feel included and loved. A hearing loss presents many challenges in communication and draws attention to the person challenged with them having to ask people to repeat themselves.

It is challenging to talk on the phone, or any other way of communicating where there is no visual input (which obviously becomes far more important when a hearing loss is suffered).

Hearing Loss Affects Our Ability To Hear Music

According to Doctor Charles Limb in his 2011 TED talk, hearing speech they can correct with innovative technology in the latest cochlea implants, but to be able to hear the beauty of music can’t be replicated. Cochlea implants, even now, over a decade after his talk, science has still not been able to make implants that help patients hear the timbre of music, and pitch undulations that music provides.

Charles Limb: Building the Musical Muscle

What is a Noise Induced Hearing Loss?

A noise induced hearing loss is as the name says, a permanent hearing loss resulting from exposure to damaging noise. That could be prolonged noise at a level you might think is safe but over a long period of time it can affect hearing, or it could be an extremely loud sound for a short period.

The hearing loss may be noticeable right away, or it may take years of exposure and you may not notice for years.

Noise induced hearing loss is different from a hearing loss at birth (which can have many causes) and comes to able hearing people after exposure to noise. Sometimes it can be permanent and sometimes it can be temporary. One thing is for certain though, if you have suffered a temporary hearing loss, although hearing might return now, you will notice it later in years when natural decline of our hearing occurs. It is often then, that you notice the effects.

This is because hearing loss usually makes the hair cells in the inner ear lie flat when they need to be maximally extended. As sound waves hit them, it is the first part of the hearing process. If the hairs are lying flat, they can’t vibrate, and the detection of sound is not possible.

With brief exposure to loud sound (say a rock concert) where you find your ears ringing the next day, damage has occurred, and some hair cells will be lying flat. Because of a youthful age, hearing might return, the ringing might stop, but those hair cells will never be upright again.

As we age, hair cells naturally start to become horizontal and if there are already patches around them from previous damage, you will notice a greater hearing loss than someone who hasn’t had that experience.

That is why people who work in loud environments their whole career will often have a larger hearing loss at the end of their life than others. This is commonly known as “industrial deafness.”

Limiting our exposure to loud environments where potential damage can occur, or at least protecting our inner ear with interventions such as noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs is the best way to protect hearing.

How Loud is Too Loud?

Research has proven that sound exposure that is too loud can produce premature births and even a reduction in birth weight.

While the occasional loud sound is not harmful, prolonged sounds above 85 – 90 dB have been proven to be in the harmful range for adults.  For children, lower thresholds are recommended.

Examples of sounds and their loudness are:

SoundMeasurement in dB
Normal breathing0 – 10
Leaves rustling, whisper30
Average home noise40
Normal conversation, background noise50
Vacuum cleaner70
Window air conditioner, power lawn mower, heavy traffic, noisy restaurant80 – 89
Subway, shouted conversation90 – 95
Boom box, motorcycle100
Leaf blower106 – 115
Rock concert, loud symphony120 – 129

How Do I Know if my Child Might Have Suffered a Hearing Loss?

The only way for certain is to have an audiogram by a certified audiologist. If a child is asking you to repeat things, it could be a hearing loss, but it could also be auditory processing challenges. Children with perfect audiograms can have auditory processing challenges which is the first thing we do before working with a child therapeutically; send them for an audiogram.

8 Steps to Protecting a Child’s Hearing

Prepare and Do Some Research

Find out what type of activity you will be going to and what types of things will be happening. For example, you know that a rock concert is going to be much too loud and without ear plugs or other intervention, damage to hearing can occur. If you are pregnant avoid it altogether.

Make choices based on potential scenarios before you arrive so you have a better chance of controlling your sound environment.

Put Distance Between You and the Sound

The distance you are from the sound makes a difference. If you are at a concert in the front row, you are going to be exposed to a louder sound experience than if you are sitting in the balconies. Choose locations that don’t place you directly next to, or too close to the sound source. If that is unavoidable, make sure you have some sort of intervention with you.

Carry Ear Plugs with You

Ear plugs are a terrific way to protect the inner ear. It provides a barrier between the sensitive aural apparatus and the sound. They are small, inexpensive and easy to carry with you just in case you end up in a potentially damaging noisy environment unexpectedly.

They provide better protection than hands over the ears and can be put in quickly and easily.

If Travelling Use Noise Cancelling Headphones

In an airplane, earplugs are not ethe best form of protection. While they are better than nothing, the constant sound of a jet engine (even inside a pressurized cabin) is exhausting on our sensory system and potentially harmful, particularly if you fly a lot. Noise cancelling earphones are the safest way to travel. They provide a barrier and the best protection for adults or children.

If you have a baby and you are flying, put your hands over your baby’s ears, particularly over louder times like takeoff and landing. This will help protect their auditory system.

Choice of seat can sometimes make a difference. If you are doing a long-haul flight and have a window seat and sleep with your head against the wall, that is far less protection than ear plugs and a pillow which provide added barriers. A seat further towards the front of the plane not near the engines will often be slightly less noisy than just past the wing where the engines sit.

Never Put Headphones on a Child Under 18 months

A child’s filtration systems are not as advanced at this age as they are when they are older. Their hearing is “less protected” and so amplification is not a good idea. Keep music playing on devices such as speakers that can be heard but are not directly entering the ear canal.

Monitor the Volume Levels on all Devices

Televisions, iPods with headphones, speaker systems, computers all need to be monitored to make sure the volume levels are safe. We tend to get used to the volume after a while and if siblings are noisy the temptation might be to increase the volume a little. When it is done little by little, we don’t notice it as much as when we walk into the room.

If you are raising your voice to be heard above the device, it is too loud.

Keep Their Ears Dry

This may not seem obvious but a child with a constant buildup of wax or wet ears, commonly known as “swimmer’s ear” requires intervention. Constantly wet ears can result in ear infections which require antibiotics. This can result in scar tissue, or worse, a burst eardrum which can cause permanent damage.

Teach Your Child Protection Moves

Teach your child about loud sounds and what sounds are too loud. Show them how to put their fingers in their ears or use their fingers to close their ears. Doing either of those is more protection than just putting hands over your ears.

It is our instinct to put our hands over our ears but teaching children the alternative will afford them with greater protection if they are ever caught in a situation where they don’t have anything else.

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