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Protecting Infants’ and Children’s Hearing

For children and adolescents, good hearing is important for speech and language development as well as cognitive development and learning. Poor hearing can often lead to issues in adulthood such as increased rates of falls, accidents, social isolation, depression and dementia.

Safe noise levels for children are based on studies of adult occupational noise exposure and hearing loss, which show that the greater and more frequent the exposure, the faster and more severe the hearing loss. Sound is measured in decibels (dB) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that noise exposure over 70 decibels (dB) may damage hearing. Although 85 dB is the safe noise exposure standard for adults in the workplace, this level should not be considered safe for children.

Children and adolescents are exposed to harmful noise from many sources including toys, personal listening devices, music practice, movies, concerts, sports events and parties. In studies by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, around 20% of adolescents aged 12-20 years presented with hearing loss. Tinnitus was reported in 45%-92% of adolescents and auditory damage from personal listening devices was found in users as young as 9-11 years.

Parents may not realise that exposure to loud noise is dangerous but if a noise sounds loud to an adult, it is very likely to be too loud for a child. Ideally, parents should avoid taking children to noisy events or if this isn’t possible, they should use earmuff-style hearing protection devices, which should seal around the ears and fit snugly against the head. Older children may be able to wear earplugs but please remember that these are a potential choking hazard for younger children.

Watching videos on a tablet or smartphone is a main source of noise exposure for children and adolescents. Limiting their screen or listening device time to no more than one hour per day between the ages of 2 and 5 may help limit noise exposure and harm to their hearing. It is recommended that parents of older children set limits for their children while they use a media device.

For older children who regularly use headphones or earphones, parents can purchase technology with noise-cancelling or sound isolating features that set lower listening volumes; turn on safer listening to the lowest sound exposure and also lock volume settings with a parental control. Volume-limiting headphones are safer than those with no limit but they are not necessarily safer for hearing.

Parents can also aim to teach older children the importance of safe personal listening in order to protect their hearing. They can also advocate for quiet space and hearing protection at their school be speaking at school meetings or with the local city or town council. Solutions for protecting children’s hearing in school include making sure that classrooms meet recommended acoustic standards; providing volume-limiting headphones for learning and offering hearing protection for band and orchestra practice.

Noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible and often starts in childhood. Infants, children, and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of excessive noise and sounds. While parents can take steps to protect their children’s hearing, professional organisations and public health authorities should also pay greater attention to noise exposure risks for the public.

If you have concerns about your child’s developmental milestones before the age of 5 years old, please get in touch with your GP.

Find out more about our audiology services for children, or call us on 01223 661399 to book an appointment.