Sometimes it is the thing that we limit, that keeps children healthy. You may think I’m writing about sugar or screen time, but guess again. It is something that, when overdone will interfere with your child’s acquisition of vocabulary and understanding of spoken word, and also affect their reading ability. Have you guessed the culprit? It is noise.
I’m not writing about exceptionally loud noise, although that will damage your child’s hearing and yours too. Thirty minutes of a loud hair dryer at close range or a nearby gas mower will adversely affect hearing as will just thirty seconds of a rock concert or thirty seconds working with a leaf blower. Loud noise leads to noise-induced hearing loss, which is mostly preventable but not reversible.
The insidious culprit today is background noise. There are very few places in life where we experience total silence. If you live in the city, there is street din, airport or overflight blasts, or train noise. In rural areas, mower and machine noise may occasionally run in the background. Within the house, the washer, dryer, dishwasher may be running and then the TV, music, and/or computer games are turned up to be heard above those competing sounds. And then we raise our voices when we need to talk above the background noise.
Children who are exposed to a constant barrage of background noise have trouble hearing differences between similar sounding words—for example, distinguishing between words such as thick and sick or pit and spit. Babies and toddlers learning to talk have difficulty picking out the sounds of language. As a result, they have lower vocabularies and more trouble making meaning out of what they hear. This affects learning to read once they get into school. Children raised in homes and neighborhoods with high background noise tend to have lower scores in reading. The ability of a child to understand speech is impaired in a noisy area, thereby missing words. With a smaller vocabulary, they can’t put meaning together.
It is not only our hearing that suffers from noise. Even low noise levels can trigger the release of stress hormones, leading to increased blood pressure. This in turn can lead to aggressive behavior and tensions in interactions with other people, as well as an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and tinnitus. Unwanted sources of noise also prevent relaxation, recovery and sleep, and impair concentration and performance, particularly in children.
At home, turn off the T.V. when no one is watching, keep the volume down on all media. Become aware of background noise. When background noise cannot be avoided, make sure you communicate with your child face to face, using careful pronunciation. Make up for missed vocabulary by reading more. You can protect your child from the harm of background noise.
Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.