You’re in public and suddenly, your toddler has to pee. You panic! You can’t find a single-family bathroom, so you carry your reluctant, crying tot into a multi-stall bathroom, crouch down, and cover their ears as they attempt to go while a symphony of flushes happens around you, not to mention the dreaded sound of the hand dryer.
As a parent, having a child easily triggered by auditory overload or with high sound sensitivity can be taxing and concerning. Why is my child so sensitive to loud noises? Is it something you should talk to their pediatrician about? Will they outgrow it?
Let’s explore what sound sensitivity is, the possible causes for sound sensitivity, and some coping strategies.
Understanding Sensitivity to Sound
While witnessing your child being triggered by loud sounds can be upsetting, it is important to remember that it is normal for children to be sensitive to loud noises and unexpected sounds.
In fact, sound sensitivity is quite common in tots six years of age and younger.
Some kiddos just take a little while longer to get used to all the sensory and auditory stimuli. And that’s perfectly ok. Every child is different and reaches their milestones at different times.
What is Hyperacusis?
If your child is sensitive to loud noises, it could be due to a condition known as Hyperacusis, where an individual experiences a lowered tolerance to sound.
Someone with hyperacusis may find everyday noises that would not typically bother others, too loud, high-pitched, uncomfortable, and even painful.
While every child is different, you may find that your little one has trouble coping with ordinary sounds that don’t bother most including things like loud talking, motorcycles, clapping or music. Children may be distressed at the hearing, or even the thought of hearing a hair dryer, a flushing toilet, or a vacuum cleaner.
Diagnosing Sound Sensitivity
Noise sensitivity can be quite common in preschoolers. Most sensitivity to sound should go away as children grow, build their auditory tolerance, and develop an understanding of the world around them.
Children with neurodevelopmental issues may experience high sound sensitivity, leading to sensory overload and an inability to filter out unnecessary noise stimuli. However, while some children may be hypersensitive to noise others may be under-responsive, or hyposensitive.
Furthermore, there are instances in which noise sensitivity can be acquired later in life due to a health condition, illness, or physical or mental trauma.
If you suspect your child is experiencing hyperacusis beyond their preschool years, if their sound sensitivity seems to have appeared out of nowhere, or if you witness other sensory problems in addition to their auditory sensitivity, speak to your child’s pediatrician or general practitioner.
After discussing your child’s symptoms, your pediatrician may refer you to an audiologist.
The audiologist will likely discuss your tot’s sensitivity to noise, their behaviour as they encounter or avoid certain sounds, and their health history.
A comprehensive hearing test may be ordered to rule out hearing loss or issues of the middle and inner ear.
Depending on the outcome, the audiologist may recommend coping strategies or may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for further evaluation.
Tips for Coping with Sensitivity to Sound in Daily Life
Feeling helpless to comfort your child during distress is just awful as a parent. You feel shame and guilt for failing to help and understand them or experience the same distress. To me, the sound of fireworks is part of the fun at a celebration. To my child, it can invoke a major panic attack.
There are everyday coping strategies you can try with your tot to help them navigate ordinary noises.
REMOVE: When your child is suddenly triggered by a loud or sudden sound, move them away from it as much as possible. Comfort your tot, offer lots of hugs, and reassure them you are there to protect them and it will all be ok.
Try to remember that times of distress are not a time to overreact, shame, or belittle them for their feelings or fears.
EXPLAIN: Once they’ve calmed down explain the type of sound that bothered them and where it came from. Explaining the source of the loud sound may slowly take the fear away by helping them understand it and may even give your child a sense of control.
REPEAT (SLOWLY): Try to desensitize your tot over time through repeated, soft exposure to the sounds eliciting the highly sensitive response. Record the triggering sound and softly play it for them in the background as they go about their day, such as during playtime or bath time, which are usually fun or calming activities.
Over time, you may be able to increase the volume to try to break the fear cycle. Just be sure not to rush it and stop if it begins to cause anxiety.
NEVER FORCE: Do not force your child to endure a triggering sound in hopes of curing them of their fear.
In a child with high sound sensitivity or sensory processing issues, it will only increase their dread and they will further associate it with a distressing experience.
DON’T COMPLETELY ELIMINATE EXPOSURE: Your automatic response to your child’s noise sensitivity may be to simply keep their environment silent. And why not, if the absence of sound triggers give you a happy tot?
Complete silence may worsen your tot’s ability to cope with bothersome sounds.
In fact, some white noise may serve to drown out some of those triggering sounds, or at the very least, help them incorporate them into their daily lives.
CONSIDER EAR PLUGS/SOUND PROOF HEADPHONE, BUT NOT ALWAYS: Another seemingly simple solution is to carry earplugs/soundproof headphones with you and use them when your kiddo is triggered.
However, like complete silence, using earplugs can prevent your tot from developing normal sensitivity to harsh noises. If you must use earplugs, do so only in extreme circumstances and for a short period.
Still, earplugs are great ear protection when anyone, especially a young child, is exposed to very loud sounds for prolonged periods, such as at a concert or an event, like monster trucks.
SENSORY INTEGRATION THERAPY: In extreme cases where tots face sensory integration issues in addition to high noise sensitivity, your pediatrician may recommend Sensory Integration Therapy.
Sensory Integration Therapy is typically conducted by an occupational therapist and sessions are play-oriented. They help children with sensory processing problems handle input from more than one sense at a time and usually involve the use of equipment, such as swings, trampolines, slides, and weighted vests.
Should I Worry?
Noise sensitivity can be quite common in preschoolers. Still, your tot’s sound sensitivity can be worrisome as a parent. In some instances, you can avoid places that you know will be loud such as movie theatres, fireworks, and performances. But often you can’t.
How can you not worry when you watch your little one in distress at common noises such as the sound of traffic?
Many parents worry noise sensitivity could be a sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or other sensory processing issues. It appears that having a single sensory problem is not necessarily an indication of ASD, a sensory processing disorder, or illness.
However, if your kiddo’s problem persists beyond the age of six, or is associated with other sensory issues, you may want to consult your pediatrician for further evaluation.