What to do when your kid is sensitive to sound

Some kids have strong reactions to loud noises. Here's how to help your sound-sensitive little one.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

“I didn’t realize Kieran was so sensitive to sound until he was able to talk,” says Tanja Knutson. “As a baby, he’d cry at things like dogs barking and rattling pots and pans, but it was only in retrospect that I made the connection.”

Kieran was just about two when Knutson had a party at their house, complete with balloons. After the party, she started popping the balloons so she could put them in the garbage. “He got so upset, he was begging me to stop making that noise,” Knutson says. Her son’s aversion to the popping sounds stemmed, she feels, from his unusually keen hearing. “Sometimes when he was in another room and I didn’t want to disturb him, I’d turn on the TV and put it on mute. He’d always come in to see what I was watching—he could hear that faint vibrating hum even with no sound. That helped me understand how loud things like balloon popping must sound to him.”

Some toddlers enjoy the excitement of bustling, noisy places, but others are especially sensitive to sound. At home, you may be able to keep things fairly quiet, but you soon discover there’s no volume control for the rest of the world. So how can parents make life easier for toddlers who hate loudness?

Block the sound
“Earmuffs and earplugs helped us through many situations,” says Natalie McMaster, whose son Keegan, now six, also found loud noises upsetting. She remembers when Keegan, then two, wanted to go to a chainsaw-carving competition with his father, but knew that it would be loud. “Keegan suggested that he could wear his dad’s ear protectors. Even with the ear protectors on, though, he only lasted a little while—chainsaws are loud no matter what you do.”

Prepare and problem solve
McMaster says it helped to warn Keegan in advance that they were going to something that might be loud, so that he could prepare himself. She also sought out solutions that would diminish the noise level. For example, she says, “we have the Privateers’ Day Parade here every year, and I wanted to take Keegan, but I knew it would be loud. One of my friends lives right on the parade route, so we were able to have Keegan watch through the window from inside the house. He did cover his ears a few times, but it wasn’t too bad.”

Take breaks
Stuck at a noisy family gathering? If you see it’s getting to your child, consider taking him for a short walk outside or for a visit to the bathroom where you can close the door. That may help him settle enough that he can handle things for a bit longer when you rejoin the crowds.

Be patient
Knutson found that her son became less sensitive—and better at coping—as he got older. So while taking your toddler to movies or fireworks, or on a motorboat ride, may lead to tears, if you can wait a few years, your child may be able to handle these situations. Keegan did eventually manage to enjoy a fireworks show when he was five—but he wore earmuffs.

There is a bonus to having a sound-sensitive kid, adds McMaster. “Keegan hated all those noisy toys that other toddlers seemed to love. And that was just fine with me!”

White noise
One solution that helps some toddlers who are sensitive to sound is to create white noise to “dampen down” loud and jarring sounds. Tanja Knutson says having a fan in her son’s room helped him sleep better without being disturbed by household noises.

Loud sounds and hearing loss
Michael Dickinson, chief of paediatrics at Miramichi Regional Hosptal in New Brunswick, says when his daughter was five, he took her to an Avril Lavigne concert. “I had those foam earplugs that you squish into the ears for her, and she kept them in through the whole concert,” he says. For preschoolers, loud noises can be painful and because their ears are still developing, prolonged exposure to loud sounds can do damage.

Unlike teens, though, preschoolers will generally try to avoid loud places. Brief exposures—such as fireworks or going to a movie a few times a year — won’t do lasting damage, says Dickinson. Ear protectors or earplugs will definitely help if you can persuade your child to keep them in place. He finds hearing loss from high-decibel sounds is rare in preschoolers; repeated ear infections or persistent fluid in the ear is more often the cause.

Read more:
Helping kids with sensory processing disorders
Sensory processing disorder
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