How to Protect Baby's Hearing

Noise

Household noise can be deafening.

baby wearing headphones

Linda Farwell

Convinced that the overwhelmingly loud crowd sounds at kiddie hangouts like Chuck E. Cheese must be truly deafening? Actually, they're harder on the nerves than the ears. "Noise levels can seem higher due to the annoyance factor," says pediatric audiologist Lisa Hunter, PhD. "Chuck E. Cheese's would rate high on noise annoyance but is unlikely to damage hearing unless kids regularly go there for eight hours a day."

The real danger may be in your child's own playroom. Some really rattling rattles and shrieking squeaky toys exceed 100 decibels (dB), according to a study done in the United Kingdom. Rockin' Guitar Elmo might look innocent, but he's potentially harder on hearing than a motorcycle roaring by. "A noisy toy is usually safe if used at certain distances, but it's risky when it's held to the ear, which many children do," says Hamid Djalilian, MD, associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of California, Irvine, where researchers tested the decibel levels of several toys when held up to the ear or 10 inches away (see "Hearing Hazards in Your Home"). Noises of 85 dB and up can damage the tiny sensory cells in the inner ear, according to the NIDCD, and damaged cells don't grow back. Elmo held against the ear registers at 98 dB (but a safer 82 dB at 10 inches), well above a passing motorcycle (90 dB). Pop star-inspired dolls may belt tunes at 105 dB, and transformer toys are even louder.

Preschoolers may not be into MP3 players quite yet, but lots of them use handheld video games with headphones, and experts believe today's literally plugged-in kids are particularly prone to hearing loss. About 12.5 percent of kids ages 6 to 19 have some level of noise-induced hearing loss, a number considered epidemic. "That suggests hearing loss is starting in toddlers and preschoolers," Dr. Djalilian says. "These kids will have significant hearing problems when they reach their 40s and 50s."

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