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Protect Your Child's Hearing

Each day almost 140 million Americans experience noise levels that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes as "annoying and disruptive." In fact, the EPA reports that if you live in a city, you're among the 87 percent of Americans who are exposed to noises that have the potential to reduce your hearing capacity over time. The Better Hearing Institute estimates that more than 28 million Americans -- about 10 percent of the population -- have some type of hearing loss.

Children are especially vulnerable to noise-induced hearing loss -- which often happens gradually and without pain -- from overexposure to noise. Excessive sound exposure damages hearing by overstimulating the tiny microscopic sensory receptors within a child's inner ear. There are between 15,000 and 20,000 of these receptors in the cochlea (inner ear); when they're damaged, they can no longer transmit sound to the brain.

Hearing damage from excessive noise is permanent. Hearing aids can amplify the sound your child hears but as eyeglasses don't "fix" vision, hearing aids don't "fix" hearing.

Life with A Cochlear Implant
Life with A Cochlear Implant

Experts say the first few years of a child's life are the most important in his or her overall development. Hearing loss can be a significant obstacle to learning, especially during early childhood. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association reports that when hearing loss is detected late, critical time is lost for stimulating the auditory pathways to hearing centers of the brain. Speech and language development is delayed, affecting social and emotional growth and academic achievement.

Unfortunately, hearing problems are often overlooked. By the time you notice obvious signs of hearing impairment, your child may already have missed many opportunities to develop important social, language, and learning skills. You can help ensure your child's proper development by knowing the following symptoms of hearing loss and seeking help if your child exhibits them:

Newborns: Your baby isn't startled by hand clapping 3 to 6 feet away or isn't quieted by your voice.

8 to 12 months: Your child doesn't turn her head toward familiar sounds or doesn't "jabber" in response to human voices.

1 1/2 years: Your child isn't using a few single words (mom, dog, etc.) or can't identify parts of the body when prompted.

2 years: Your child can't follow simple commands without visual clues or can't repeat phrases.

3 years: Your child can't locate source of a sound or can't understand and use words like "go," "me," "in," or "big."

4 years: Your child can't give a connected account of some recent experience or can't carry out two simple directions in a row.

5 years: Your child can't carry on a simple conversation, or his speech is hard to understand.

School age: Hearing loss in school-aged children is sometimes indicated by frequent inattentiveness, lack of concentration, below-par performance, and frequent colds or earaches.

If your child is experiencing any of these problems or not exhibiting average behavior for his or her age group, consult your physician.

Here are some tips for protecting hearing in noisy environments:

1. Have your child avoid prolonged exposure to common sources of loud noises, such as a television or stereo on high volume.

2. Have your child wear protective earplugs when he's exposed to sustained loud noises, such as power tools or a lawnmower.

3. Make sure the sound environment (noise from heating or cooling systems, computer buzz, and appliances) at your child's school is compliant with EPA regulations.

4. Make minor modifications to your home, or suggest them at your school. Some homes and schools built near consistent and excessive noise, such as heavy traffic or trains, can make occupants particularly susceptible to hearing loss. These minor changes can create a more acoustically favorable environment:

  • Wall-to-wall carpeting
  • Acoustically treated tiles on ceilings and walls
  • Well-fitted and closed windows and doors
  • Quiet heating and ventilation systems

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that prolonged exposure to sounds at 85 decibels or higher can result in hearing damage. Here are the decibel levels of various sounds and events.

Kitchen garbage disposal: 85 decibels

Heavy traffic: 85 decibels

Noisy restaurant: 85 decibels

Walkman on high volume: 110 decibels

Snowmobiles: 110 decibels

Ambulance siren: 120 decibels

Rock concert: 120 decibels

Firecracker: 125 decibels

Noisy squeeze toy: 135 decibels

Jet engine: 140 decibels

Source: Miracle-Ear Children's Foundation

Reviewed 2/02 by Jane Forester, MD

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.