Noise is bad and scary! Toddler version
February 5, 2015 2:33 AM   Subscribe

My otherwise healthy and happy 2-year-old is extremely frightened by noises of all sorts. The list includes dogs barking, cows mooing, chainsaws, the big bucket of water at the swimming pool, diggers, distant freight trains, vacuums, the popcorn popper, etc. This is really affecting his quality of life, and we're not sure how best to deal with it. Ideas?

Kid in question is 27 months old. This extreme sensitivity started about 3-4 months ago, and has been getting worse and worse. As you can see, the list of sounds is quite varied, and I'm pretty sure it's not (or at least not only) about volume: he is disturbed by many of these sounds even if they are far away, but seems to have no problem with other loud noises (e.g., children screaming happily right in his ear). He has not had scary experiences with any of these things, to my knowledge.

I'm worried because this is getting a lot worse, to the point that it is limiting what things he will do. He is an otherwise very adventurous, novelty-seeking kid... but suddenly, even though he loves swimming, he won't go to the pool with the big bucket of water unless the bucket is turned off (so it doesn't make the pouring sound he objects to); because of the cow, he won't go to the local farm without it being a big trauma, even though it used to be a special treat; he used to love to watch diggers and trains but now can't stand to be near them; etc. Most problematically, he spends a lot of time when he is in the house on the alert, nervous for the noise of distant freight trains or dogs or the neighbors vacuuming their house, rather than actually doing anything. He wakes from sleep crying hysterically if there is a noise from any of these things, and often will not be soothed back down. (This is not good for his nap schedule, and he needs the sleep; he still takes about two hours a day when undisturbed).

When there is a sound, he gets very worried and will ask, "Train/cow/dog/vacuum coming?" and cling tightly to us. If the thing is visible and obviously not coming, that doesn't reassure him at all. Us reassuring him that noises can't hurt him doesn't reassure him. Nothing makes him feel better except complete cessation of the noise, and even then he is usually on edge for a while afterward worried that it will return.

We have always dealt with it by being very calm and giving him cuddles and assurance when necessary. We will move him from the noise if it is possible and he is just melting down, but we don't go out of our way to avoid noises because (a) this many noises is just part of life; and (b) I feel like it would just increase the problem - avoidance is not a good solution to anxiety, learning that something is not to be feared it is. I'm pretty sure this is not an attention grab since he gets plenty of attention already and he doesn't do it more when we aren't paying attention to him. He seems genuinely traumatised by the noise.

Other than that, he appears fine. He is very verbal and social; I'm not worried at all about autism or anything like that. He is at or well ahead of his milestones, he loves doing lots of different things, and (other than this) is generally a cheerful, energetic, happy little guy. Eats very well, sleeps very well when not interrupted. But this noise sensitivity is just getting worse and worse.

We haven't taken him to the doctor for this, partly because I have no idea what I would say or what we would want them to look for. Last year he had some ear infections but those cleared up a while ago.

Probably irrelevant, but for what it's worth, he's absolutely fascinated by sounds in general. He is obsessed with complicated drum and didgeridoo music to the extent that that is all he wants us to play in the car, and he will use his precious limited youtube time watching drumming videos and "drumming" along with them. (He has no problem with them even when they are loud hard rock). He will listen to music in general for very long amounts of time, just sitting listening like teenagers do; and it's usually really good stuff (i.e., not children's songs) with complicated rhythms, melodies, and harmonies.

My questions:
- How normal is this sound sensitivity? I know toddler age is when you start to see more weird fears arise, but this feels in my gut like it's a bit extreme, and has been going on long enough that I'm not convinced it's just a weird phase. On the other hand, I don't know any toddlers well except for my son, so I'm kind of flying blind.
- If you have had a kid with this issue, what did you do that helped? (Or hurt?)
- If you are a professional, do you think this is something to be concerned about? If so, what do we do?
posted by forza to Human Relations (30 answers total)
Just wanted to emphasise that even though some of the noises are loud, many of these noises are things that I myself hardly notice (e.g., dogs in the distance, the neighbor vacuuming, etc). It is not primarily about volume.
posted by forza at 2:38 AM on February 5, 2015

More informed people will weigh in, but I think you should really take him to the doctor. There are a number of medical conditions that can lead to sound sensitivity. If this is something like that, you want to catch it early if you can.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:56 AM on February 5, 2015 [11 favorites]

Please take him to a doctor, and get his hearing tested.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:39 AM on February 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Hi! I had weird hearing growing up. Besides my personal experience, I actually remember some discussions my mom had with different folks that sound very much like what you've posted.

To describe what your kid *might* be going through: Certain sounds came through really "sharp" for me, some still do and I will flinch if it catches me off guard. When I say sharp, I mean as in "sharp pain", like someone pulling a hot knife along whatever the hell nerve is responsible for the signal "Hearing=Pain". All kinds of stuff hit it, chalk on a chalkboard, plates being stacked, something getting crunched on someone's show they were watching, sometimes a classmate had just the wrong kind of eraser... The two worst were television static and the wind catching my ears wrong. Since my mom avoided taking me to the doctor unless it was the ER, I did a lot of random crying in pain growing up.

Obviously, my parent didn't worry about it and my coping mechanism was blasting loud music through my headphones until I was about 17 or 18.
At that point I'd blown out my hearing enough that it didn't bother me as much. It's kind of a bummer, because as a side-effect I could usually hear stuff other folks wouldn't.

Please, take him to a doctor.
posted by ThrowbackDave at 4:07 AM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think most kids do go through a period of increased sound sensitivity at this age, but your case sounds extreme. My kid would freak out if she heard a siren, for instance, but it never got to the point where she was on alert or afraid to go places because of it. It's obviously affecting your life negatively; definitely time to see a doctor.

Is he sensitive to other things? Temperature extremes, scratchy clothing, etc.?
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:17 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree about getting him checked out, but also think it's within range of normal for that age. Some kids are really into X and really sensitive to all things X, for good or for ill.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:18 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

This seems more like anxiety than a hearing issue. From your description, he reacts to and is fearful of unexpected and startling noises. One way to test this hypothesis is to preview what's going to happen and then sit with him while you both watch a video of cows mooing, vacuuming or anything else he's been triggered by. I can see where cows mooing could be startling; they're just standing there all quiet and all of a sudden they make these really loud MOO sounds. Practice making mooing sounds together before you watch the video. Or you could try it with the vacuum. Record you vacuuming and watching the video together, and in the video you can explain you're about to turn it on, and it's going to be super noisy. See if the noise bothers him then.

If he knows the cow is going to moo (or the vacuum is going to go on) and he's still bothered, this may be more of an anxious reaction. Kids going through heightened periods of anxiety is pretty normal as they start to explore the world and take in all sorts of stimuli, it can take a while for them to process it all.

I may be way off, but this seems more like fear of unexpectedly LOUD sounds than a hearing issue. And little kids do go through (I want to say weird but I won't) interesting periods of development.

But I would consider taking him to a speech and language pathologist and get some testing done if it looks like he physically cannot deal with many different sounds.
posted by kinetic at 4:38 AM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have very good hearing and when I was little lots of sounds really bugged me. I didn't get anxious but I really did not like it. I used to tell my Dad when the hi-fi was unbalanced and I'd noodge him until he fixed it. Some sounds just went right through me. I remember kvetching about a sound in the car, a high pitched whine, and I would not shut up about it. Everyone was really annoyed about it, right up until a fan belt went.

At 27 months, you really don't have the language to describe WHY you're annoyed, you try to convey your distress about whatever it is with whatever language you have.

Get him tested, but he just might have super-power level hearing (mine stood me in good stead when I was a teacher.) If this is the case, as kinetic suggests, learning to deal with the annoying sounds of the world can be really helpful.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:06 AM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Could also be sensory processing disorder. Seconding getting him to a doctor and getting an opinion.

If the doctor isn't helpful and you are in the US, your local school district should have an early childhood intervention program that will do screenings for things like hearing issues and SPD.
posted by pie ninja at 5:13 AM on February 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

In addition to recommending that you take him to the doctor and get his hearing tested I wonder if he'd feel happier about loud noises if he could make some himself? Think tambourine, maracas, triangle. And music in the house, and encourage him to dance to it by dancing yourself. (Of course all of this might drive you nuts!)
posted by mareli at 5:13 AM on February 5, 2015

And here's a link that might interest you.
posted by mareli at 5:17 AM on February 5, 2015

Of course, nobody here knows the ultimate answer, but I'm with Ruthless Bunny here. It could be very acute hearing, which could be a good thing in principle. When I was a kid, I had a similar phase where strange surroundings, the trash truck, train doors etc. got me into freakout mode. It got better when I was three. Also I started making music at five...
posted by Namlit at 5:25 AM on February 5, 2015

Disclaimer: I don't have a kid.

In addition to taking him to the doctor just in case (since sensory processing issues exist outside the autism spectrum), I wonder if a temporary solution might be to invest in toddler hearing protection (I know they make gun muffs in baby/toddler sizes, hopefully for taking your kid to loud places without guns) and see if that blocks the noise of the vacuum next door or whatever (or knocks out the frequencies that he's finding upsetting) so he can have can get away from the noise, at least some of the time. (Doesn't solve the pool and doesn't help him cope in situations where blocking the noise isn't an option, so might be counterproductive, but perhaps it's a question to throw at the doctor.)
posted by hoyland at 5:33 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Toddler mom here. By all means get him checked out. But my guess is that this is in large part toddler experimentation with communication- he is as much stuck on the routine of being scared, the idea of being scared, and the extra attention as anything else. Try ignoring it and see what happens.
posted by yarly at 5:33 AM on February 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Your toddler sounds like my ex-toddler, now five. He would freak out about everything, including barely noticeable noises made by water moving through the pipes in our house. It always made more sense to me as anxiety about the unknown rather than actual sound sensitivity, mainly because just like your toddler, mine was fine with knowable sounds. I just ended up explaining all the sounds to him over and over and showing him YouTube videos of cars, planes and so on. He almost grew out of it but he still gets anxious about noises sometimes. On a perhaps related note, he just got started with music lessons and he clearly has some ability, and I myself had an outstanding musical ear growing up.

Also, I don't know you personally but most people grow up wearing headphones and therefore have at least somewhat "damaged" hearing by the time they hit 16. Personally, I grew up without headphones and I often cannot stand to be in an environment that other people are perfectly comfortable in. So those sounds may be legitimately quite a bit louder to him than they are to you.
posted by rada at 5:38 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to add that if you get him a sound effects toy, you'll be his forever hero:)
posted by rada at 5:46 AM on February 5, 2015

My daughter just turned 5, and although she was never quite as extreme in terms of feeling anxious or afraid as your child seems to be, she was definitely VERY bothered by sounds like sirens (even if distant), leaf blowers and lawn mowers (even when a couple of blocks away), and other loud noises. I have very sensitive hearing, and my father has legendarily sensitive hearing -- to the point that my mother couldn't run the dishwasher when he was home because the noise irritated him beyond belief -- so I assume she's taking after us. My daughter also LOVES music and seems to have an aptitude for it, and she loves loud rock and roll. It was the noise of machinery that troubled her, and she seems to be coping better as she gets older. I never talked to her doctor about it, and we mostly coped by talking about what was wrong and distancing ourselves from noises that bothered her (or covering the bothersome noises with music she enjoyed). I think it's worth mentioning to his doctor, though, as it's hurting his sleep and overall quality of life. I'm not sure how much this helps, but I just wanted to reassure you that there is at least one other kiddo out there who was like this and has mostly moved past it.
posted by katie at 6:22 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Remember too kids have have more sensitive ears than grown ups they haven't fried them yet. If doctors find nothing wrong, I'd buy him a pair of ear protectors, they come in cure kids sizes, next time a noise bothers him hand him a pair to wear, instead of possibly reinforcing his fears, teach him coping mechanisms.
posted by wwax at 6:23 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

This level of sensitivity can be a gifted thing. I would definitely keep an eye out for local music programs or enrichment classes. There are a lot of qualities that are terrible in some contexts and wonderful in others.

I agree very much about headphones he can take on and off--not headphones that make noise, just physical noise protection.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:33 AM on February 5, 2015

It's great to hear of kids who have outgrown/are outgrowing their issues. It's so hard to tell at your child's age.

My child is 4, and I expect he is about to be officially diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder. See my very recent thread here. He has had great fear of and aversion to unexpected loud noises since a bit before he turned 2. The tricky thing about 2-year-olds is that it's a time when it's normal to suddenly be scared of everything under the sun. In our case, every time we mentioned it to the pediatrician, we got a response of "eh, some kids are like that." It was when he entered preschool, hit the limit of his coping skills, and suddenly started melting down all the time that we started to talk about a sensory processing disorder. There is currently some debate as to whether SPD can exist separate from autism or ADHD but my anecdata is a screaming yes. Our child is highly unlikely to be on the autism spectrum. He does have difficulty focusing his attention in a stimulating environment but I suspect that is more related to inability to filter out distractions than an underlying attention deficit.

Micropanda has a constellation of symptoms (hypersensitivity to sticky fingers, water temperature, noises, car motion, clothing tags, stiff pants; plus some subtle gross motor delays) that, each taken individually, could be normal, but all together point to a problem that needs to be addressed. We have just completed an occupational therapy evaluation, the results of which will be discussed tomorrow, and they will hopefully be able to address both his motor skill deficits and his sensory integration problems.

I do personally recommend a set of toddler hearing protectors. We have these. My mom thought it was enabling him (in a bad way) to continue being sensitive, but I felt just the opposite: I think they have helped him approach certain scary things (like the blender) on his own terms. Over time, he has stopped needing them when I use the blender, for example.

Your profile says you are not in the US, but please investigate whether your country has an early intervention program. In the US, parents can directly request a developmental screening of children under the age of 3 (with or without pediatrician referral), and children found to have delays or other challenges qualify for low-cost occupational/physical/speech therapy. Kids over the age of 3 are handled by their local school system (even if they are not in school yet) or through insurance and private practice.

If you have more questions, please meMail me. I have been struggling with Micropanda's hearing sensitivity for a couple of years now, and have spent way too much time reading about all sensory integration in the last month. I feel your pain, oh so very much.
posted by telepanda at 6:45 AM on February 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

My niece, now three, would really tense up and get clingy around loud sounds when she was two, including sounds I didn't even perceive as being loud: my electric toothbrush, for example.

I remember once last year we were at a ski mountain and the snow grooming machines started up (sounding like a lot of loud trucks, but I was barely aware of the sound) and she got very anxious and clingy, and I totally did not understand why until she said, "Loud sound! Loud sound!"

Anyway, she's still a bit wary of hair dryers and things like that but she's largely grown out of it. You probably want to keep your eye on it, and if hearing protectors help him feel some control over the sound maybe give him the option of using them.

But as a random non-parent non-medical professional I suspect it's in the range of normal and he may well grow out of it quite soon.
posted by mskyle at 6:53 AM on February 5, 2015

If he knows the cow is going to moo (or the vacuum is going to go on) and he's still bothered, this may be more of an anxious reaction. Kids going through heightened periods of anxiety is pretty normal as they start to explore the world and take in all sorts of stimuli, it can take a while for them to process it all.

I may be way off, but this seems more like fear of unexpectedly LOUD sounds than a hearing issue. And little kids do go through (I want to say weird but I won't) interesting periods of development.

I just reread kinetic's comment above and would like to add that my son is constantly on heightened alert for things that might make a loud noise, because he anticipates that it will hurt him. If he sees something he thinks might make a loud noise, he cocks his hands next to his ears, ready to clamp over them at a second's notice.

So, just because your son is anxious about noises doesn't answer the question of whether the problem is that he's too anxious or the problem is that the sounds hurt his ears.

And kinetic is absolutely right. This could be a weird kid stage (I have no qualms using 'weird'). Or, it could not. Parenthood is a bitch, isn't it?
posted by telepanda at 6:57 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Upon reading some of the comments and reflecting a bit more, I think it sounds like you should follow up with your doctor mostly because your intuition is telling you something is slightly off here. My other child has an eye condition, and initially her pediatricians sort of brushed off my questions; eventually, I just asked if there was any way I could take her to a specialist because I remained concerned. Sure enough, she really does have an issue that needed treatment. So, it can't hurt to be a bit insistent about this.
posted by katie at 7:05 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is absolutely a time to go to the doctor.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:27 AM on February 5, 2015

I have a teenager with hyperacusis and misophonia. The best thing we did for his sleep was to get a white noise machine and use it regularly.
posted by tuesdayschild at 8:39 AM on February 5, 2015

My son is noise sensitive and is also very tuned in to sounds and noises like your son.

Last winter he avoided baths for several months - turns out he hated the noise of the water running, once he was more verbal (he's turning 4 in June), he was able to say this year "the water is sooo loud, mommy", instead of running out screaming, like he did last year. He still talks about the noise of baths now but doesn't avoid them completely.

I don't think my son reacted as much as yours to noises inside the house but I remember dogs barking ruining his naps around the same age for sure. A sound machine might help a lot during his naps.

I got him noise blocking head phones and I don't vacuum or run the dishwasher around him unless I really need to. I warn him when I'm going to do something loud and tell him he can go far away from the noise/cover his ears if he doesn't want to. We talk about loud versus quiet and have fun being loud and then quiet and so on. When my son is sensitive or scared of something I try to address it and talk about it, like "you really don't like the sound of the bath, it's really loud, isn't it?" and I find that helps instead of "it's ok, really, it's fine".

It sounds like you're doing all the right things (reassurance, giving him access to sounds he likes). If he doesn't have to go swimming, for now, can it just be avoided? Does he need to go to the farm? I am a big proponent of taking the path of least resistance in these sorts of things, if he needs to feel secure and a greater sense of control over his environment I don't think you'll create a shut-in, he's only two. I get what you're saying about anxiety and avoidance but in my experience there are phases and sometimes bombarding a sensitive kid with what they dislike isn't helpful. Last winter my son melted down when forced to attend family outings where it'd be a big party with lots of noise and people, this year he's totally fine, the avoidance didn't create a problem. It can be hard when your preferences are different from your child's but I think respecting the child within reason is healthy.

One more out-there consideration is that he might have too much change in his schedule right now and it's making him more sensitive than usual. If you look up Ayurveda the Vata dosha governs sound and tactile sensitivities. Your son is likely high in Vata (not a bad thing at all), but it means lots of movement and lack of routine will throw him out of balance, and thus he'll have a lower tolerance for handling these sorts of unpredictable noises and it's creating anxiety. Try to focus on sleep and a stable routine, reduce unnecessary outings, and give him more access to sounds he likes in his environment (like playing his favorite music more frequently or during his sensitive times of day) and see if that helps.
posted by lafemma at 8:44 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

My daughter (now 6) used to get distressed around loud noises like fireworks, thunder, and sirens. We had to leave the circus once because the music was too loud for her (it wasn't bothering any other kids). She's very anxious, so I think the loud noises put her over her anxiety "threshold." We got her a pair of earmuffs (like these) and got in the habit of bringing them everywhere with us.
posted by diogenes at 9:16 AM on February 5, 2015

Thanks, everyone. I have made an appointment for him at our GP in a few days. All of your feedback has been very useful in thinking that this at least has the potential to be something other than weird toddler-ness. That, plus the following things that only just happened:

1. This morning Toddler and I had the following dialogue, almost verbatim:
Me: When there is a loud noise, like a train, does it hurt or do you just not like it?
Toddler: Hurt. Not like it.
Me: It hurts, like an owie?
Toddler: [ToddlerName] not like freight trains, not like red bucket.
Me: I see.
Toddler: Bunny go to swimming pool and turn off red bucket. Bunny and [ToddlerName] happy, go swimming.
(I think this last was wish fulfillment, but does suggest that he really does want to be doing things, but the noise is just too aversive)

2. Coincidentally, I started today trying to get Toddler used to using headphones while working on the iPad because we're going on a plane to the US in a few days. He loved the headphones (even more than the iPad!) and refused to take them off even if they weren't attached to the iPad. He started crying when I told him that we weren't going on the plane for six days because he thought he couldn't wear the headphones again until then. So perhaps there is something to the idea that lots of sounds are actually painful for him. It makes me think that I'll also suggest headphones or something similar as a coping device for loud sounds, as several people suggested upthread.

3. Like I mentioned, he did have a bunch of ear infections when he was littler. If those screwed up something about his sensory processing, or he had a lot of glue ear that just went away a few months ago so now everything is super-loud, that might explain a lot of this.

To answer a few questions:
- He has no other sensory sensitivities that I'm aware of.
- The more I think about it, the more I do think there may be some actual pain. (Thanks for making this hypothesis so salient!). He doesn't like it even when we say "Moo" in a cow-like voice, even if we warn him (though he's fine with just the word; it's something about the actual sound). When I warn him about a vacuum or popcorn popper or laundry machine or whatever, he isn't anxious but he always runs to be as far away from the noise as possible. Which again suggests that the anxiety is about not knowing if something is about to cause him pain, and if he can mitigate the pain, he feels fine.

Anyway, I hope we get this sorted. I hate the thought that he might be actually hurting from this. :( And if he's not, then it will be nice to know that too and work out some other coping mechanisms! Thanks.
posted by forza at 4:49 PM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

How are things going? Hoping the appointment went well and that you felt supported by his doctor.
posted by barnone at 10:59 AM on March 3, 2015

Thanks for asking. Actually, my partner was the one who was scheduled to take him to the GP but he totally forgot (grr) and we had to hop on a plane to go overseas the next day so we weren't able to make a new one.

While overseas, things slowly improved. I tried several of the suggestions here -- mainly letting him have headphones if he wanted, trying to give him as much control as possible, etc -- and it's gotten a LOT better. I wouldn't say it's all perfect, and we're keeping an eye on it still, but it's gone from "might there be something really wrong?" to "normal toddler pickiness" levels. He is now willing to be in the same room as the popcorn popper, vacuum, and coffee machine; he was quite intrigued by me using a leaf-blower the other day, and only needed to know that he was allowed to go inside and shut the door if he needed to; he even sought out a freight train and watched it quite happily while standing next to the tracks, only needing his hands on his ears.

I don't know if this improvement had anything to do with what I did, or if (as I now suspect) the whole problem was caused by his glue ear recovering and it just took him a while to recalibrate for the increase in volume. But it does seem to have resolved itself, more or less. This AskMe was really useful for letting us know what sort of things to look out for, and we'll be quicker to make a GP appointment if it suddenly seems to be going really bad again, but at this point I think (cautiously) that we're in the clear.
posted by forza at 3:53 AM on March 22, 2015

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