Turn It Down! The Effects of Noise on Your Child

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Noisy toys, appliances, occupational noise,…etc. fill the world around us. A parent questions the apparent indifference to noise she senses in the people around her, and explores how babies perceive sounds, and the effects of noise on children and their health.

The other day, my kids were having fun with their buddies, playing a board game. They had the stereo turned to a Latin American beat, which drummed away, sending my feet flying in the kitchen. I was fighting a losing concentration battle with a recipe I was trying to put together, while the music’s rhythm vied for my attention with my twin daughters, who insisted on involving me in a block-building project.

Finally, I asked the boys to turn down the stereo. Their reaction? “Mom, you’re the only one who doesn’t like the music!”

That stung. Sure I like music, almost any kind of music. Love it, in fact. But when it’s blaring in my ears I find the noise level unbearable. It really bothers me, to the extent that I find it detrimental to the harmony of my home.

Then there’s my favorite coffee shop where I order my “Café con media lunas” (they make the best croissants!). I bring my laptop and hide in a corner where my kids can’t interrupt while I harvest my thoughts. There, too, they like their music. And they like it loud. So I bring my ear plugs.

I began digging. How deep is the apparent indifference to noise that I sense in the people around me? How do children in schools handle noise when they, too, need to concentrate to learn? What about babies? How do they perceive the sounds around them, before and after they’re born? And back to my son’s comments, am I really the only one who’s bothered by noise?

My findings were a loud, resounding NO!

Noise or White Noise?

There is a breeze rustling in a tree, whispering its song to the leaves. Water gently laps in waves by the sea shore, serpents its way, singing in a meadow brook, or roars in torrents down a river. That is white noise, and distinctive from noise in that it’s a sound signal or sonic frequency whose monotony has a calming effect on people of all ages. This explains why so many lullabies, massage and meditation tunes simulate the gentle, continuous sounds of white noise. Babies, especially crying babies with colic, find music with white noise soothing and relaxing. Research has shown that a steady stream of the same peaceful sound can filter and mask distracting noises.

A government study conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Acute Pain Management in Infants, Children and Adolescents,” found that, “The use of therapeutic audio could be helpful in reducing pain and stress, while improving healing and reducing the need for traditional pain medication interventions.”

The word noise, on the other hand, is derived from the Latin word, noxia, meaning “injury” or “hurt.” It is defined by the National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) as being, “Any sound—independent of loudness—that may produce an undesired physiological or psychological effect in an individual and that may interfere with the social ends of an individual or group.” Don’t forget to add in the vacuum cleaner, coffee bean grinder, road traffic, screeching airplanes, pounding rock bands, and your neighbors too-loud stereo system.

Health Effects of Noise on Children

“Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience,” said Dr. William H. Stewart, MD, former US Surgeon General. “Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.”

Studies and research conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the NIPH, the Department of Public Health and the National Noise Center, the National Center for Environmental Health, and the World Health Organization (WHO), unanimously list the harmful effects of noise as multiple, far-reaching and, in some cases, irreversible. Those can include hearing loss or impairment, interference with speech communication, disturbance of rest and sleep, mental-health and performance effects, effects on residential behavior and annoyance, performance reduction as well as interference with intended activities.

Studies are also underway to corroborate a theory potentially linking noise to another serious condition, Menieres Disease, which causes fluctuating hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ear), bouts of vertigo, and headaches.

Because noise causes stress, it elicits an increased adrenaline reaction, affecting the cardiovascular system, changing heart rate, and causing a rise in blood pressure.

Studies conducted by Dr. Lorraine E. Maxwell, PhD, and Dr. G.W. Evans, PhD, and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology state that the effects of noise on preschool children’s pre-reading skills go beyond studying the obvious noise effects of hearing impairment on children, dividing non-auditory results of noise exposure into three categories:

  • physiological effects
  • motivational effects
  • cognitive effects

Drs. Maxwell and Evans list the most important physiological effect of chronic noise exposure as being elevated blood pressure levels, which “appear to continue this pattern into adulthood, thereby increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease.” Motivational effects render children “more vulnerable to learned helplessness,” while cognitive effects impair memory, may cause attention deficits in children exposed to chronic noise levels, and may negatively affect academic achievement, particularly reading,” according to the duo.

Says Dr. Maxwell, “It is worth noting that the attentional research also found that noise interfered with children’s discrimination of speech. All children were tested in quiet conditions in this study, thereby confirming that chronic noise, and not acute noise, is related to academic achievement.”

Babies and Noise

Even in the previously-thought “safe” shelter of the womb, babies’ hearing can be placed at risk. A report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics concludes that exposure to excessive noise during pregnancy may result in high-frequency hearing loss in newborns, and may be associated with pre-maturity and intrauterine growth retardation.

Further studies have shown that exposure to noise in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) may result in inner ear damage.

Noise Environment and Children’s Learning

According to their Science Daily News Release, researchers at The Ohio State University have found that, “The acoustics of many classrooms are poor enough to make listening and learning difficult for children.” The findings point to the fact that children’s learning ability and speech development is hindered when they can’t hear well in the classroom.

Dr. Lawrence Feth, PhD, professor of speech and hearing science at Ohio State explains that sound bounces off of hard surfaces, and classrooms normally have hard floors and walls. “When sound bounces around it creates its own masking noise, and interferes with understanding speech,” he said.

Dr. Gail Whitelaw, PhD, adjunct associate professor of speech and hearing science at Ohio State, adds that children are particularly sensitive to bad acoustics because they are still learning language, while adults’ larger vocabulary helps them mentally compensate when they can’t hear clearly.

What This Means for Parents

So, what can you do as a parent to prevent noise from harming your baby or older child?

  • In a nutshell, avoid noise and minimize your family’s exposure whenever possible. Nobody in their right mind would jeopardize their vision by staring directly at the sun; our hearing deserves the same consideration. The television and stereos can be turned down. Headphones, video arcades, and noisy toys can be kept to a minimum or ruled out.

  • For pregnant women, Dr. Kenneth Gerhardt, MD, of Florida University says, “While we don’t have direct information, we recommend that pregnant women avoid such noise exposures if possible. The rule of thumb is that if you have to speak loudly to be understood, that noise environment is potentially dangerous to your hearing and your infant’s hearing.”

  • Parents can lobby for more laws and government efforts to control noise pollution at all levels, including toys and around airports.

  • Use protective devices such as ear plugs and mufflers if you know that you or your family will be exposed to a loud noise (workmen drilling in the walls, lawnmowers, motor boats, jet skis, and so on).

  • Homes, schools, and childcare centers can be redesigned with sound buffers in mind. Sound waves bounce off hard surfaces, high ceilings can aggravate sound reverberation. Though carpeting may be hazardous to children with allergies and asthma, soft surfaces, including pillows and curtains, can help buffer sound. Says Dr. Maxwell, “Sometimes the noise source is the design of the spaces. Designers should keep in mind the use of the spaces they are creating. In child care centers, spaces must allow for the fact that children need to make noise, but the subsequent noise levels should not be harmful to them or others in the center.”

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