Olympian puts baby’s hearing safety first

Swimmer Michael Phelps may be the winningest Olympian of all time, but he and his fiancee also earned a gold medal in parenting at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

You might look at pictures of 3-month-old Boomer Phelps sporting over-the-ear headphones while watching his dad swim and think, “Like father, like son.” But that headgear is serving an important purpose, say Drs. Samantha Mueller and Michael Blackburn, audiologists with OSF HealthCare. Supra-aural earmuffs, like those worn by Boomer, muffle loud sounds to help prevent hearing loss or tinnitus, which is that frustrating ringing in your ear you may have experienced after a loud concert.

And while it’s easy to say the Olympics are a special circumstance, taking proactive steps to protect your child’s hearing is important even in everyday situations.

“Hearing damage is becoming a big issue, because we’re becoming exposed to so many more unnatural sounds,” said Dr. Mueller. “Where we used to see hearing loss start in the 50s, now we’re seeing it more often even among teenagers.”

Measuring sound

Sound levels are measured in decibels. Most humans speak at around 55 decibels. Hearing damage can start to happen around 85 decibels, about the equivalent of a bulldozer idling. Most MP3 players can deliver sound up to 100 decibels. A single gunshot is 140 decibels.

You’d need about eight hours of exposure at 85 decibels to see damage to your hearing, but sound at 100 decibels can affect hearing in as little as 15 minutes. And it doesn’t need to be all at once.

“The effect loud noises can have on your hearing is cumulative,” said Dr. Blackburn. “So even small exposures can add up and make a big difference.”

That means that anytime your kid is in a loud situation – whether at a concert, playing in the school band, watching a tractor pull or hunting – ear protection is an important consideration.

Hearing protection

So what are the best ways to protect your child’s ears? Here are some tips:

Buy protective gear for your kids.
“The best and easiest gear to use for young kids are the supra-aural earmuffs. Earmuffs are different from regular headphones, as they are designed to protect hearing, and can cost less than $50,” said Dr. Mueller.

Know what you’re dealing with.
“There are a lot of great phone apps out there that can measure the sound level around you and let you know if it’s safe or if you should be using protective gear,” said Dr. Blackburn. “There are also some great websites for children and adults to learn more about hearing safety, like dangerousdecibels.org.”

Keep your distance.
“If you don’t have protective gear with you, remember that the farther you are from the sound source, the safer you are,” said Dr. Blackburn.

Monitor your kids’ listening habits.
“If you can hear the music coming from their headphones, then they’re playing it too loud,” said Dr. Blackburn.

Start young.
“The sooner you practice hearing safety and get into the routine of it, the better your kid will do throughout their life,” said Dr. Mueller.

Make it fun.
“Let your kid pick out their own earmuffs. Buy a set that is their favorite color, or they could decorate them with stickers. Let them make the earmuffs their own so they’re more willing to wear them,” said Dr. Mueller.