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Do babies really need to wear huge headphones to protect hearing?

POSTED February 8, 2018 4:19 a.m.
The best visual from this year’s Super Bowl wasn’t the Tom Brady sack, or even Duron Harmon’s interception. What stole the show was Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Nick Foles and his adorable 7-month-old daughter, Lily, trying to grab the mic wearing enormous pink headphones.

This isn’t the first time a baby in big headphones got a lot of Super Bowl celebration attention. Drew Brees’ son Baylen also sported them after the Saints' win in 2010.

Are these baby headphones just a fashion statement, or should little ones really be wearing them to protect their tiny ears?

A study in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics found the average peak noise levels of athletic events to be about 118 decibels (dB). The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) says noise-induced hearing loss can happen when people listen to loud sounds. It classifies any noise level above 91 decibels as extremely loud and dangerous to hearing. With the average noise level at the Super Bowl likely well above 91 dB, it looks like those babies were right on. ASHA recommends everyone should be wearing earplugs or earmuffs when the noise level is above 91 dB. This would apply to concerts, snow blowing and many hair dryers.

Levi A. Reiter, head of the audiology program at Hofstra University, tells the New York Times that an infant might perceive sound much louder than an adult. “Noise that is potentially dangerous to an adult is even more dangerous to a child,” he says.

The Minnesota Department of Education says hearing loss can happen after one short burst of dangerous sound levels, or exposure to any unsafe noise level for a longer period of time. For instance, one minute of exposure to noise levels above 110 dB can cause hearing loss. This would include listening to an iPod at full volume, a rock concert, a motorcycle or an ambulance siren. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says anything above 85 dB puts ears at risk for gradual hearing loss. These levels apply to noisy toys, the subway or even a lawnmower.

It might be hard to believe that toys could cause hearing loss. But every year the Sight and Hearing Association comes out with its Noisy Toys List, to draw attention to loud toys it says recklessly expose kids to possibly damaging decibel levels. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) says if noise levels go above 85 dB, you should be wearing hearing protection. The Noisy Toys List from 2017 includes the Disney Elena of Avalon Magical Scepter that puts out 96 dB, the Vtech Chomp & Count Dino at 94 dB, and LeapFrog’s AlphaPup at 87 dB. Mind you, the noise level goes down about 11 dB if a child holds the toy 10 inches away from them, but many kids like to have the toys right up to their ear, putting the volume at its maximum level.

So how can parents know when an environment is too loud and could possibly do damage to kids’ ears? The Minnesota Department of Education says if a parent is standing an arm’s length away from a child wearing headphones and is able to hear music, the volume is too loud. ASHA says if you are in a setting where you must raise your voice to be heard or if you are unable to hear or understand someone three feet away from you, it’s too loud.

If you still aren’t sure, download the free iOS sound level app from NIOSH for fairly accurate, real-time noise level testing.

If you decide to buy hearing protection for your baby, Baby Banz allows your child to still hear what’s going on, but at a safe level. These come in a ton of colors and have been spotted on the ears of Boomer Phelps (Michael), HRH Prince George, and Blue Ivy. You can find these at most major retailers for $20-$25.

The owners of Em’s 4 Bubs Hearing Protection are both professional musicians who wanted their new baby to be part of their world, but couldn’t find anything to protect her little ears. Instead of having a headband that goes over the top of the head, these have a thick stretchy band that goes across the forehead and around the back of the head. These run $30-$35 and have different colored bands available to buy and swap out.

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