safe hearing for children

How to Protect Your Child’s Hearing

Exposure to loud noises, especially over a prolonged period of time, can cause irreparable damage to young ears. Over the past few years, it’s become more and more common to see parents taking precautions to safeguard their children’s hearing by using earmuffs at special events. Events such as car races, live sporting events, concerts, fireworks, and movies can all cause damage to hearing, as well as activities such as riding a motorcycle, dirt bike, four-wheeler, or tractor. Playing an instrument, whether in a band or taking lessons, can also be loud enough to damage hearing over time.

Sound is measured in decibels (dB), and anything measuring over 80 dB can cause hearing damage. The average conversation generally registers at about 60 dB, and traffic on a city street is around 85 dB. Regular piano practice can be approximately 70 dB, and most band instruments (violin, flute, trombone, trumpet, etc.) can clock in between 85 and 110 dB. A symphonic musical performance will generally register around 120 dB, while a rock concert can be 150 dB at its peak.

Types of Hearing Damage

There are a few different types of hearing damage that can occur due to not protecting your ears, and they include more than just hearing loss: 

  • Tinnitus – a persistent ringing in the ears. 
  • Hyperacusis – increased sensitivity to ordinary sounds and reduced tolerance to loud sounds.
  • Dysacusis – sound distortion. 
  • Diplacusis – an abnormal shift in pitch perception between the ears.

The above mentioned are a few of the types of damage that can occur, with some being more commonly diagnosed than others. 

In the United States

50 million

people are estimated to suffer from tinnitus.

According to the World Health Organization

1.1 billion

young people worldwide between the ages of 12 and 35 are at risk of damaging their hearing due to exposure to unsafe noise levels.

Common Causes of Hearing Loss

Many things could cause hearing loss, some of which we have no control over, such as genetic defects. But we could decrease our exposure to those that we can control to lessen the impact or prevent hearing loss altogether. Some of these causes are listed below:

  • Musical instruments
  • Exposure to Loud Volume – Music, TV, or Screaming
  • Infections – such as frequent untreated Middle Ear Infections
  • Head injuries
  • Small objects becoming stuck in your child’s ear
  • Excessive ear wax

In this guide, we will be touching on the first two common causes of hearing loss.

Musical Instruments

Playing a musical instrument isn’t necessarily what most people think of when they picture protective equipment, but that’s what needs to be happening. Regardless of which instrument your child is learning to play, there are risks to their hearing involved. 

We’ll take a quick look at a couple of popular instruments below to compare the range of risks. 

Comparing dB of Musical Instruments

Piano

Some instruments are less risky than others. A regular piano practice, for example, is generally measured at around 60-70 dB, although when played, fortissimo piano registers significantly higher at 85-100 dB, so even piano players should be prepared to wear protective hearing equipment.

Guitar

When it comes to the risk of hearing damage to guitar players, there’s a big caveat: Are we talking acoustic or electric? Acoustic guitars typically clock in around 60-70 dB, which is well within the safe range. On the other hand, electric guitars can vary widely depending on the amplifier you are using, but they will be louder than acoustic guitars. Most guitar amps can produce sound levels of 115 dB. The moral of the story is, don’t crank your amp up to 11 and always wear your earplugs!

Drums

You might have guessed that the risk of damage to a musician’s ears is highest for drummers, and you’d be right. Full-sized drum kits are known to produce noise levels measured at between 90 dB and 130 dB, so right off the bat, you’re in the danger zone. Different pieces of the kit can produce different levels of noise, but they can all be damaging. 

When the volume is measured at the ears of the drummer sitting behind the kit, the following levels are typical: 112 dB for the ride cymbal, 111dB for the crash cymbal, 117 dB for the hi-hat cymbals, 105 dB for the bass drum, 110 dB for the toms, and 120 dB for the snare drum.  So if your child is going to be playing the drums with any kind of regularity, they are a prime candidate for long-term hearing damage.

Another factor to consider is where you will be playing the drums – will your child be practicing at home in a small room or garage? The sound of the drums will bounce off the walls and amplify. Consider taking steps to insulate the room where your child will be practicing. This doesn’t need to be fancy or elaborate – just putting the drums on a carpet, blocking gaps between the floor and the door, and covering the corners in the room can help the sound levels in the room drop slightly.

Fortunately, over the last few years, people are becoming more aware of the effects of long-term hearing loss as musicians are speaking out about their experiences. These days, most professional drummers will wear custom-made earplugs or some other form of protection when they play.

Examples of Hearing Loss in Professional Musicians

To see real-life examples of the effects that playing an instrument can have on your hearing after many years of consistent use, take a look at a few of the biggest rock stars in the world. Several artists have spoken out about how they now suffer from hearing loss and how that has affected their careers. Like former Genesis drummer and solo artist Phil Collins, who now wears hearing aids, had to retire from playing music entirely.

Like Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, others continue to have active careers touring and recording, but with a new emphasis on protecting their hearing. Martin, who started experiencing the effects of tinnitus – a persistent ringing or roaring in your ears due to the effects of continued exposure to loud sounds – when he was only a teenager, has been a strong advocate for protecting his hearing. These days he always wears earplugs when he performs, and so do other members of Coldplay. Martin also encourages audience members, especially young ones, to wear headphones or earplugs to his concerts, as his children always did when they attended.

Other musicians whose careers have been affected by hearing loss include Ozzy Osborne, who suffers from permanent tinnitus, and Eric Clapton, who is deaf in one ear. Pete Townshend, the guitarist for The Who, suffers from severe tinnitus and is permanently deaf in one ear after drummer Keith Moon blew up his drum set on stage in 1967. Moon died in 1978, but it’s likely that if he had lived, he would also have eventually had some severe hearing damage from that incident. Neil Young even says that he wrote his 1992 album Harvest Moon because he didn’t want to hear any loud sounds after recording his 1991 album Weld after suffering hearing damage while mixing it. 

These may be some extreme examples, but it’s essential to look at the long-term effects that playing music can have on your hearing and take steps to protect it now that we understand the damage that can occur.

Because hearing is so vital to a musician’s livelihood, they need to take steps to protect their ears. Research suggests that somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of musicians have hearing problems due to years of prolonged exposure to high levels of decibels. Musicians can use a few tactics to protect their hearing, including positioning themselves strategically on the stage. For example, sound travels in a straight line, so musicians will stand off to the side instead of standing directly in front or behind a speaker. Many musicians also take steps to protect their hearing by wearing protective equipment, such as earplugs.

Exposure to Loud Volume – Music, Speaker Distance, or Screaming 

Prolonged exposure to loud music or TV shows could negatively impact your child’s hearing. Now you cant expect your child to avoid loud noise every day because that is just not doable. But there are things you can do to lessen the impact on their hearing. We will be discussing a few situations and their potential risks and possible ways to limit the risks.

Decibel Comparison of Music, Speaker Distance, or Screaming

Using Headphones or Earbuds

Using headphones or earbuds to listen to music brings the sound waves closer to your ear canal and drum. Playing music or listening to movies through these devices can cause permanent hearing damage, also known as noise-induced hearing loss. Earbuds are more likely to cause harm than headphones, but with both devices, you need to be aware of the volume level and time spent using these devices.

Earbuds place the sounds waves directly into your ear canal, placing more strain on your eardrum and the hair cells in your ear canal. With the sound being placed directly into your ear canal, the sound’s volume can increase by 6 to 9 decibels. An iPhone’s maximum volume is 115dB when listening with earbuds that increase by 6 to 9 dB. This means that a total of 124dB of sound are flowing directly into your ear. 

Headphones sit outside the ear, which means there is less natural amplification. But, depending on the design, it prevents the sound waves from escaping, which can affect your child’s ears in a similar way to the headphones. 

A rule of thumb to follow when using headphones and earbuds is the 60/60 rule—60% volume for 60 minutes a day. You can listen at a volume lower than 60%, but try not to exceed 60 minutes a day, just because the volume is lower than 60%. For an iPhone, 60% would be 69dB. 

Standing too Close to the Speakers

The average decibel of a speaker is around 88dB. Standing too close to speakers for an extended period has the same effect on your child’s ears as the earbuds and headphones do. If you are in a situation with your child where you feel you are standing too close to a speaker, try moving 4 to 8 feet away from the speaker. The larger the speaker, the further away you move. 

Screaming – Like at Children’s Parties

We all know the loudest thing at a kid’s party is the screaming and laughing children. A baby’s cry is around 130dB. Having 6 or 7 children running around and screaming could exceed the 130dB. Avoiding parties to protect your child’s hearing seems impossible and, let’s admit, not fun. But perhaps when you’re hosting the party, plan activities that can limit the volume and leave the screaming activities for the last hour of the party. Such as, start the party off with painting or crafts. And end it playing catch or hide and seek. 

Types of Hearing Protection

There are a few different options when it comes to protecting your child’s hearing. Of course, the least expensive and most important type of hearing protection is the volume control on all the audio devices your child has access to. However, we’ll take a look at both earmuffs and earplugs, of which there are a couple of different types. 

You may have to try a couple of different kinds before settling on one that is comfortable for your child. It may take a few tries to get them comfortable with this new safety gear. Ultimately, the best kind of hearing protection is the one that is actually used, so if your child finds earplugs uncomfortable, consider switching to earmuffs, for example.

Earplugs

Earplugs are small and are fitted directly into the ear canal. You can find both disposable and reusable options, and some come with little cords that attach the earplugs to make it easier to keep track of them. You can find earplugs that come in different sizes, but it may be challenging to find them in very small sizes for toddlers and young kids. Parents might need to help kids insert earplugs the first few times until they learn to do it themselves and make sure that the earplugs are a good fit.

  • Foam earplugs are an easy, low-cost option to start with. Made of soft foam, they are widely available in many stores and will expand to fill the ear canal once inserted in your ear. These earplugs are generally meant for one-time use and can be bought in bulk packages for convenience. Although they are most easily found in one size, they can also be found in smaller sizes that would fit younger children’s ears. 
  • Pre-molded earplugs are typically made from plastic, rubber, or silicone and can be found in various sizes, including smaller sizes for children. There are also high-tech versions of this type of earplug available, called uniform attenuation or high fidelity earplugs. These earplugs will reduce the sound intensity evenly across different pitches, from low-pitched instruments such as a bass drum to higher-pitched instruments such as a flute. This can be very helpful in concerts, where you want to protect your hearing while still enjoying the music.

Earmuffs

If you have a young child with small ear canals or a child with sensory needs who would not handle inserting something in their ears, consider protective earmuffs. Consisting of two padded plastic cups connected by a flexible band, they go over the ears and come in various sizes that will fit anyone from infants to adults. They are easy to use and effective, although they might not be as comfortable for people who wear glasses, and the glasses could create a small gap between the earmuff cushion and the head. They are also not compatible with hats, so consider that if you’ll be using them outside.

Tips for Encouraging Kids to Wear Protective Gear

  • Establish a standard from the beginning.
  • Involve your kids in the process of choosing their protective gear; this way, you can find a solution that your children are happy about. 
  • Be consistent with the use of the gear.
  • Spend less time using headphones to listen to music.
  • Keep the TV or any device volume low. 
  • Never sit directly in front or behind a speaker.

It’s a good idea to present hearing protection in the same way you would other safety gear, such as putting your seatbelt in the car or wearing a helmet while on a bike. By establishing the standard from the very beginning, kids will grow up accepting that the safety gear simply goes along with the activity as they grow older. 

Your six-year-old in beginner lessons might not be playing the guitar as loudly as Pete Townshend or Ozzy Osborne did, but if you set the standard early that you wear hearing protection when playing the guitar, by the time they’re sixteen and rocking out in a garage band, you can be assured that taking steps to protect their ears will be second nature to them.

You can get kids engaged in the process by involving them in choosing their hearing protection. Earmuffs can come in many different colors and sometimes even with fun characters, and sometimes earplugs are available in different colors. Choosing their own protection can give a child ownership of the situation and make them more enthusiastic about wearing their hearing protection. 

It also helps to be consistent, ensuring that hearing protection is worn in all scenarios where it’s needed, even if you aren’t there to supervise. This might mean making sure all adults in your child’s life are on the same page and emphasizing the importance of always wearing their hearing protection even if there are no adults around to remind them. Be a good role model, too, and bring along your hearing protection when you go on a family outing to the fireworks show or a concert.

Aside from wearing headphones, there are a few other minor changes you can incorporate into your family’s daily life to protect everyone’s ears. If you can, try to spend less time wearing headphones to listen to music or podcasts, and when you do wear headphones to listen to personal audio devices, keep the volume turned down as much as possible. Keep the volume on the TV or stereo turned down, and never sit or stand directly in front or behind a speaker when listening. Along with wearing hearing protection, these steps can form the base of a lifetime of healthy habits that will keep your child’s ears safe. 

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