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Planning on taking baby to a dazzling Independence Day fireworks display? Consider bringing along pint-size hearing protection.

According to audiologists, safeguarding infants’ hearing is critical, because their ears may not be able to withstand the damage from loud events and activities—think concerts, festivals, sports stadiums, parades, and fireworks. 

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), noise-related hearing loss is completely preventable — but once it occurs, it is permanent and can’t be reversed. 

When hearing loss begins in babyhood, sub-par hearing can impair critical early learning, including speech comprehension and language development. Unlike adults, babies aren’t able to simply walk away from a dangerously loud sound, nor can they communicate clearly about whether a sound is bothersome. 

Hearing math 

Infants’ smaller ears absorb more pressure from sound waves than the larger ears of adults; over time, sound pressure can damage the cochlea, the spiral-shaped cavity within the ear that picks up sound. So how much noise is too much?

Per the NIOSH, an hour of exposure to 94 decibels can damage hearing, and more than 15 minutes of exposure to sound 100 decibels is unsafe. Crowded sports stadiums can soar to 130 decibels; fireworks displays can pack an ear-popping 150 to 175 decibels. If sound is loud enough to make an adult jump or flinch, it’s loud enough to damage a baby’s hearing, because infants perceive noise at 20 decibels louder than adults.

Auditory defense

Protecting infants’ hearing is easier said than done. For harried new parents, hearing protection can slip down the priority list, since damage is invisible and takes years to accumulate. And inexpensive foam earplugs are too large for babies’ tiny ears and may pose a choking hazard.

Luckily, parents have other options. Wearable hearing protection—in the form of specially-made earmuffs—is the best way to protect little ears from damage. A number of companies, including 3M and Baby Banz, make protective headgear that’s specially sized for baby’s small heads and ears (most are designed to fit babies 6 months and up). These lightweight earmuffs are made with sound-muffling foam and generally cost under $40. Look for hearing protection at many big-box retailers, sporting goods stores, and Amazon.com. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that noise reduction has profound health benefits: In one study, newborns who wore ear protection experienced more periods of quiet sleep; another study linked quieter NICU environments to better health outcomes for pre-term infants.

When baby’s ears are protected, you’ll enjoy the sounds of a safer summer — music to new parents’ ears.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.

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