Hearing protection for children of all ages is important because hearing damage from loud sounds is permanent. Children under the age of 5 are more susceptible to hearing damage so it’s especially crucial to protect their ears. Hearing protection can also make loud environments more comfortable for children with sensory issues or autism.
What to look for in hearing protection
The two styles of hearing protection for children are earplugs and earmuffs. When worn correctly, both are equally effective. The main advantage of earplugs is they are small (they fit in a pocket and aren’t bulky to wear) – if you won’t lose them! For babies and toddlers, earmuffs are recommended because earplugs are a choking hazard. Earmuffs also may be more comfortable for some kids (and adults) who don’t like the feel of a plug in the ear.
Loudness is measured using a number scale (called decibels, or dB), and hearing protection will say how many dB it will lower the sound (when wearing properly). The rating of most earplugs and earmuffs will reduce sounds in the range of 20-30 dB. If you feel your hearing protection is too drastic, try looking for something on the lower side (20dB vs 30 dB, for example).
Types of hearing protection for children
For babies and toddlers, Banz Earmuffs are a popular choice. The noise rating is 31 dB which will keep a baby’s ears safe in just about any environment. There are many cheaper alternatives (with a similar noise rating) including Dr. Meter and Amazon Basics.
Mack’s Moldable Silicone Putty Earplugs have a rating of 22 dB. They are also waterproof and can be used for swimming. Mack’s Slim Fit Foam Earplugs have a noise rating of 29 dB. The ear canal is full adult-size at 5 years but some kids may find a slim earplug more comfortable and easy to put in.
How to put in foam earplugs
Roll the earplug (with clean hands) into a narrow tube. Pull back the ear slightly and put the tube in the ear with a slight turning motion. Hold the plug gently til the foam expands (around 30 seconds). It’s ok if the plug isn’t sticking out far – that’s how they’re designed to work. (PK Safety has photos of how to do this.)
Why can’t I use cotton balls, tissue paper, clothing or a hat?
Cotton balls only reduce about 7 dB, which is not nearly enough to protect your ears in a loud environment (like a concert). Hearing protection is usually designed to reduce 20-30dB.
Why can’t I just wear noise cancelling headphones at a concert?
It’s a good question – but noise cancellation is NOT the same as noise reduction. An earplug (or earmuff) is designed to reduce all frequencies no matter what sound reaches your ear. As long as it’s worn properly, your hearing will be protected.
There’s no guarantee noise cancelling headphones will protect you, and are not designed to reduce sounds to the degree of hearing protection. Noise cancelling works better with some frequencies and sounds and not at all with other sounds. Noise cancelling works well with steady sounds (like the rumble of a plane or car) but not as well with changing sound.
An analogy would be wearing a coat that’s not waterproof vs wearing a rain coat. If it’s only sprinkling, you’ll probably get some protection from the rain. If it’s raining hard and you’re not in a rain coat, you’re going to get wet – possibly really wet. Any sort of physical barrier (whether it’s a jacket to protect from the rain or an ear covering to protect your hearing) is going to be better than nothing. But, things like cotton balls, headphones, and hats are not the right “tool” for the job – to protect your hearing when it’s too loud (or too bothersome).
Examples of loud environments where you may need hearing protection
- Concerts (any type of music that’s being amplified)
- Sports events (with loud crowds)
- Airshows, near a helicopter landing
- Car races, monster trucks
- Fireworks show at close distance
Sound gets quieter as you move further away. If you’re far enough away, you won’t need hearing protection (so that’s always an option). If you want to be up close at a fireworks show or a concert, hearing protection is the safe way to do that. I highly recommend reading How loud is too loud for kids? for more information.
For kids under 5
Children under 5 are at more risk of hearing damage than anyone else. Because their ear canals are shorter in length, they are more susceptible to hearing damage than an adult (or young adult). If a child is complaining a sound is too loud or their ears hurt from a sound, don’t ignore it. It really is louder to them.
Suggestions to help young children wear earmuffs
- Try to integrate hearing protection early on. If your child get used to wearing earmuffs before they are old enough to protest, you have a greater chance of them wearing earmuffs in the future.
- Do NOT make it a game! If you make it a game (i.e. taking them on or off repeatedly) your child will likely continue this game (removing the earmuffs when you want your child to wear them)
- Set realistic expectations. It’ll take more than a few days for them to get used to it (especially with young children). “Try introducing the earmuffs daily and gradually, starting with less than a minute and eventually working your way up to a longer time span. However, be aware of the surroundings when you are doing this. If the earmuffs are preventing them from experiencing what is going on around them at the time (i.e. if they were playing with a singing toy, or watching a cartoon), they will most likely not cooperate.”
- Involve your child. If they can, have them help choose earmuffs. There are a lot of colors and patterns to choose from.