How and When to Protect a Baby’s Ears From Loud Noises

Loud sounds happen, but parents should still go out of their way to protect children's eardrums.

During a baby’s naps, parents obsess to keep quiet (incidentally, is not the best tactic), but when a kid is awake few parents give much thought to the decibel level unless the crying gets super loud. That’s bad news for infants, who have delicate eardrums and can easily suffer future hearing loss in part due to aural childhood trauma. Put another way: The guy with the noise cancelling headphones on his kid at the concert is not being ridiculous — unless he’s in the mosh pit.

“When we talk about age-related hearing loss it really is compounded by exposure to noise over the course of one’s life,” explains Dr. Ian Windmill, Clinical Director of the Division of Audiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “So the early you start protecting your hearing, the better off your hearing is in the long term.”

Windmill notes that long-term damage isn’t the only concern. As more very young children spend more time listening to music or shows through headphones, volume increased along with the prospect of short-term hearing damage. “Children today are exhibiting more signs of noise-induced hearing loss,” he says. In fact, patterns of hearing loss associated with prolonged domestic noise — as opposed to industrial noise — were being observed in up to 10 percent of children in the early 2000s, a number which Windmill is certain has climbed since.

The problem of noise is particularly acute in infants. This is largely due to their anatomy. Windmill notes that sounds for infants are actually louder for babies than they are for adults due to the size of their ears. This can make it difficult for parents to understand when the noise is becoming too noisy.


“Normal conversational levels are good benchmarks,” says Windmill. “Just do anything for a long period of time that’s louder than normal conversation levels.”

Interestingly the source of the noise doesn’t matter. Loud is loud. Loud classical music, for instance, is no different than loud rock music. Loud industrial noise is no different than a noisy restaurant, which can have similar decibel levels. The trick is to understand that the louder an environment is, the less time a child should be exposed to it.

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How to Protect a Baby’s Hearing

  • Try to keep noise to normal conversation levels.
  • Download a decibel meter app and keep noise below 70.
  • Anytime you have to struggle to understand someone three feet away it is too noisy.
  • Invest in earmuff style hearing protection with an adequate noise reduction rating.
  • Never use ad hoc methods of hearing protection like cotton balls or tissue paper.

For parents unsure about being able to tell when things are getting too noisy because they have suffered hearing damage themselves or are just part of a loud family, Windmill notes that there are plenty of apps that offer decibel monitoring and they generally work well to get a ballpark understanding of how loud an environment is. “Generally speaking you want to keep everything below 70 on those decibel scales,” he says, but also offers another handy non-app trick. “If you’re in a room with anybody else and you have to raise your voice for someone to understand you at a distance of three feet, it’s too loud.”

The best noise prevention according to Windmill is to simply remove a child from noisy environments. Still, life gets noisy. Parents can’t help that. They can, however, pick up some products that help. Parents who’d like to control exposure to loud sounds should invest in hearing protection. The most comprehensive devices are “earmuff” style protection that resembles headphones. They’re common and come in varying sizes. Parents should make sure that whatever they purchase has a noise reduction rating or NRR. One of the main benefits of this type of hearing protection is that it covers the ear rather than going inside the ear and causing problems with ear wax.

Earplugs, on the other hand, are not designed for children. Not only can they fall out and create a choking hazard, they can also cause damage to a child’s short ear canal. This is the same reason Windmill warns that parents should never use ad hoc methods of ear protection such as wadded tissue paper or cotton balls.

In the end, Windmill urges parents to be mindful of hearing issues. “We call it the invisible problem,” he says. “Once you damage parts of the ear it’s damaged forever. You protect a kid from falling down so protect their hearing too.”

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