Your little one's ears are bombarded with noise every day: from the television and radio, traffic, screaming siblings, and a variety of toys that whistle, wail, and play loud music. While most of the noise is harmless, some sounds can reach levels so high that, over time, they can permanently damage hearing.
An estimated 5.2 million children ages 6 to 19 have some degree of noise-induced hearing loss in at least one ear, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But the damage may begin at an even younger age, perhaps as early as infancy. "Babies and toddlers frequently hold noisy toys close to their face or against their ears, exposing themselves to potentially harmful sound levels," says Julee Sylvester, spokesperson for the Sight & Hearing Association, in St. Paul. Since it's hard to gauge when the damage occurs (and it's impossible to undo it), prevention is key, says J. Gail Neely, MD, an ear-nose-throat specialist at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis. Read on for ways to keep your child's ears healthy.
The ears funnel sound waves through the cochlea, a chamber in the inner ear filled with fluid and lined with thousands of tiny hair cells that help convert sound into messages to the brain. When exposed to very loud or prolonged noise, the cells stop moving and flatten. With continuous noise exposure, they remain motionless and die, permanently altering how sound is processed.
Hearing loss isn't the only consequence. Children who live near airports, train tracks, or busy roads are exposed to chronic noise, which makes them more prone to high blood pressure, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and an inability to concentrate. And kids with even slight hearing problems have been shown to have lower self-esteem, more problems in school, and greater speech and language delays than kids with good hearing. They're also more likely to be misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because they can't hear the teacher or follow classroom activities.
In 2003, the Toy Industry Association -- bowing to pressure from organizations like the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the Sight & Hearing Association -- set the voluntary sound limit for toys at no more than 90 decibels when held approximately 10 inches from the child's ear. (That's about as loud as a lawn mower.) But manufacturers are not required to follow these guidelines, and they aren't obligated to list a toy's sound level on its packaging. And while you can figure out on your own that that toy-ambulance siren is deafening, studies have found that even sing-along books can exceed safe sound limits when held too close to a child's ears, Sylvester says.
If your baby passed a hearing screening before being discharged from the hospital, he should get subsequent screenings between the ages of 3 and 5; every year from kindergarten until third grade; and again in seventh and 11th grades. If your child has a history of ear infections (another cause of hearing loss), he should be checked more frequently. And he should see the pediatrician for a hearing test if he frequently asks, "Huh?" Other red flags: Your child talks very loudly (or sometimes too softly), tilts or turns his head to hear something or someone, and blasts the TV or radio.
Screen toys first. Before giving your child a toy, listen to it while holding it no more than 12 inches from your head. If you flinch, then it's too loud.
Control the volume. Look for toys with on/off switches and volume control. If a toy is loud, put packaging tape over its speaker to muffle the sound (only do this for older kids) or remove the batteries.
Listen safely. Kids should use foam earplugs or sound-reducing earmuffs anytime they're exposed to loud prolonged sounds, such as at concerts or sporting events. (Having your child plug his ears with his hands is better than nothing, but it's far from ideal.)
Take a reading. Test a toy's "ear friendliness" by holding a sound-level meter against its speaker (you can get one at an electronics store for about $40). Beware of anything louder than 85 decibels.
Report noisy toys. If you think a toy is too loud, report it to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (call 800-638-2772 or log on to cpsc.gov/incident.html).