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Health Update: Are Your Kids' Toys Causing Hearing Damage?

Question: What's louder -- your kid's Tickle Me Elmo or a subway train?

Answer: Depends how close your child holds her Elmo toy to her ears while playing. University of California, Irvine researchers recently found that a number of popular children's toys were louder than100 decibels when held next to the ear -- that's equivalent to the sound of a lawn mower, power saw, or subway.

"Although these toys are perfectly safe when used correctly, many children don't play with them correctly," says researcher Hamid Djalilian, MD, director of the Hearing and Balance Center at UC Irvine. "And prolonged exposure to any noise over 90 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss later in life."

Unfortunately, the kind of hearing loss that results from too-loud sounds usually won't show up in your child overnight -- in fact, it might not affect her until she reaches middle-age, says Djalilian. "But the damage is cumulative and starts early, so it's important that parents pay attention to their children's toys and make sure they play with them the right way." Here's what to do to keep your kid safe:

  • Whenever your kid gets a new toy, hold it up to your ears. If it makes them ring or hurt, it's most likely a damaging level of sound, says Djalilian.
  • Then play with the toy about a foot away from your ear. If the sound still makes you wince, your child shouldn't play with this toy unless you can lower the volume or take out the batteries.

Though permanent hearing loss often occurs even without obvious signs, do pay attention if your child complains that his ears hurt or ring, often asks "what?" during conversations, or wants to crank up the volume while watching TV.

Have your child's hearing tested regularly. Babies are usually screened before they head home from the hospital (if not, they should be by 3 months), and children should get tested annually from ages 3 to 6, then about every other year up to age 18. Your pediatrician might recommend additional screenings based on other risk factors, like family history, frequent ear infections, or if your child shows signs of hearing loss, for example.

Here are toys sampled by researchers and their sound in decibels when measured approximately one inch from the speaker. Although you don't need to toss them, do make sure your child plays with them at arm's length.

 



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