Flight essentials: Choosing safe headphones for kids

It’s not easy travelling with little ones. From making sure everything is packed, disrupting their schedules to keeping them quiet and entertained on your journey. A good set of children’s headphones can make all the difference to a journey.

Headphones are a travel essential for children: They will help entertain your child and give them a bit of buffer from annoying noises around them. Having their own headphones- made especially for children- will ensure a good fit, hygiene and that their hearing is protected too.

There is so much more to choosing the right headphones for kids than is first obvious.

Why do my kids need headphones while travelling?

Kids wouldn’t necessarily need their own headphones while travelling, but there are so many advantages to them having access to devices and educational apps and entertainment at different phases of your travel.

In public spaces, it’s polite and considerate not to subject everyone else to the sounds and noises of your personal entertainment, to baby rhythms and such.

Imagine someone playing “Baby Shark”, maybe repeatedly, in the waiting lounge within earshot! 🤣

Younger kids also benefit from white noise to help them sleep better. The disturbing noises from planes, trains and buses can keep waking your little one up. White noise, soft gentle tunes can keep your child from having their sleep constantly interrupted.

So, while you don’t need headphones while travelling, it is a great option to keep your kids both entertained or sleeping peacefully on a long journey, for their sake, your sake and the sake of the passengers around you.

You should invest in a pair of good headphones for your child for the reasons of safety, fit and comfort.

Mistakes parents make when buying kids’ headphones

We’ve all been there: When I first travelled with my toddler, I knew I had to do what I could to keep them entertained: Downloaded films, games, audiobooks and music would go a long way in keeping her entertained and letting me catch a breather too. My lifeline was a pair of headphones connected to my phone or our tablet.

Before the trip, I went shopping and picked up the first pair that looked like it passed the toddler test: cute, the right size, could plugin for use on my phone and on the flight and affordable (because we all know what any gadget goes through when subjected to the toddler test!)

Of course, airlines usually provide headphones on mid to long haul flights too.

It wasn’t until I overheard a sales assistant at the duty free telling another customer about specifics of headphone design for children that I realised headphones could be damaging my toddler’s hearing. I looked up the specs of the original headphones and wasn’t convinced of their safety. After returning my set I went on a search for good quality headphones that will avoid permanently damaging my child’s hearing.

Beware, headphones have been associated with hearing loss

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that over a billion teens and young adults worldwide are at risk of hearing loss from unsafe devices. This is caused by loud sounds reaching hazardous levels through headphones. This potentially causes noise-induced hearing loss.

A recent study was conducted in the Netherlands, among school children aged 9 to 11: The study confirmed that there was an association between portable music player use and hearing loss. The study found that 40 percent of the participants who used portable music players were less capable of hearing high-frequency sounds due to noise-induced hearing loss.

These are all very frightening when you are considering buying travel headphones for your children.

What should I consider when buying travel headphones?

1) Volume-Limiters are Essential for Kids’ Headphones

Volume-limiters have a volume control that goes no higher than 85 decibels.

It is important to be able to restrict the volume on your child’s headphones. Exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels for a prolonged period can cause potential hearing loss. By volume-limiters, you can enforce the maximum volume that your child can use without constantly monitoring them.

It is also important to do some research and buy a reputable brand, as recently, it was found not all volume-limiting headphones met the guidelines that they promised. While the manufacturer specified that the headphones had a maximum limit of 85 decibels, research has found that this was not the case.

The Wirecutter, reviews gadgets and gears conducted a study revolving around volume-limiting headphones. The study tested headphones that claimed to have a maximum volume of 85 decibels. The test found that one-third of the headphones tested allowed volumes that exceeded this. The study finding emphasises that volume-limiting are important but, use still needs to be supervised by a parent. (They went into amazing detail during their testing- read all about it.)

2) Active Noise Cancelling Headphones

Children tend to raise the volume until they are blocking out all background noise. By using active noise-cancelling headphones, your kids may be more inclined to voluntarily reduce the volume because they are not being disturbed by ambient noise.

Active noise-cancelling headphones use active noise cancelling to counteract noise in the environment. These headphones can reduce background noise such as chatter or the rumble of an aeroplane. This is done by generating an ‘anti-noise’ sound: this sound will cancel any ambient noise.
Imagine this as two waves the same height and wavelength, just in the opposite direction… they cancel each other out.

Active noise cancellation technology is developing fast and headphones with the tech are coming down in price. Investing in active noise-cancelling headphones are a great way to protect your little one’s ears. Noise-cancelling headphones can also be used on or with white noise to allow your children to sleep without any interruptions.

Active noise-cancelling headphones should not be confused with noise-cancelling headphones!   Noise-cancelling headphones rely on physically engulfing the ear or filling the ear canal to block out sounds. These act like ear defenders, which is actually quite unhealthy for prolonged use.

3) Are over-ear headphones safer than in-ear buds for kids?

Over-ear headphones are safer than in-ear headphones for kids.

Why is this? Let’s take a look at each type. There are three types of headphones currently in the marketing over-ear headphones, on-ear headphones and in-ear earbuds.

Over-Ear Headphones

Over the ear headphones are described as circumaural headphones by audiophiles. Over-the-ear headphones usually have thick headbands and large ear cups that cover the ears. They have a bulky look and feel to them. They are popular because they provide a comfortable fit and have some noise cancellation features.

On-Ear Headphones

On-Ear Headphones are called Supra-aural’ headphones. On-Ear headphones have a more compact design. They have smaller cups when compared to the over-ear headphones. The cups rest on the ears, rather than over the ears. These headphones usually do not have noise cancellation technology and allow for a more open sound. They have the advantage of letting the ear canal breath better, but the listener will usually use them at a higher volume.

These are the type that airlines usually provide for children.

In-Ear Earbuds

In-ear earbuds have small earbud tips that are inserted directly into the ear canal. These are ultra-portable and easy to just pop in your pocket. In-ear earbuds usually have excellent noise-cancelling properties because the earbuds are placed inside the ear, so they also naturally block out sound.

The Verdict on Best Headphone Design for Kids

Most doctors recommend over-ear headphones over in-ear buds and over-ear headphones for children. The over-ear headphone cups provide a buffer of space between the ear canal and the source of music. Over-ear headphones also block out noise through the virtue of their design.

On-ear earphones do not have the same noise-cancelling properties. This can cause your child to unintentionally increase the volume to block out ambient noise.

In-ear buds are not recommended because they have been known to aggravate the ear canal in young children.

4) Fit, Weight and Design

The fit, weight and design are quite important for children. How often have you battled a toddler over an item of clothing they refused to wear, just because they didn’t like it?

Does the headphone fit your child?

You want to ensure is that the headphone is a comfortable fit for your child, especially if they are younger.

Travel headphone for kids usually come with an adjustable band around the head. You want to make sure the band fits around your child’s head. You also want to make sure that the ear cups are snug around your child’s ear.

The proper fit will ensure that they are comfortable. It will reduce external background noise while they are using their headphone too. Try a couple to make sure they are not too loose, too tight or too bulky.

Don’t sweat the “cute” features

Cheap children’s headphones often come in all sorts of cute designs to tempt your child to use it. Most of the more serious brands with a background in sound technology often opt for more plain and mature designs. You have to consider: they are, likely, putting their money where it matter- the quality and safety.

This is an awesome idea by Courney from: a little craft in your day

DIY the design

If your child is not enthusiastic about the design of the headset, why don’t you let them decorate it with some stickers? You could embellish it yourself, yarn bomb it, add cute ears for your little kitten, and so on. Your imagination is the limit. This way you can end up with something quite unique and you can include your child’s name too.

5) Wired or Wireless Headphone

When travelling with your kid’s headphones the question of wire versus wireless is quite important:

Wireless headphones use Bluetooth technology.

The advantages of Bluetooth headphone is that

  • it reduces tangling and strangulation hazards;
  • bluetooth volume control is more reliable and easier for parents to monitor and adjust;
  • they will connect to more devices: the latest smartphones have no headphone socket (and need a specific adapter to connect audio via the charging point. (It is likely that other technology will follow suit)

The disadvantage of Bluetooth headphones is that

  • they have batteries and need to be charged to work;
  • they also tend to be slightly more expensive;
  • another downside to a Bluetooth headphone, when travelling, is that it cannot be connected to the airline media system.

To connect to the airline media system, you need to purchase a wired headphone and an additional airline adapter.

Our recommendation is to go for a headphone which offers the best of both worlds: a wireless headphone and additional audio socket and cables that can be used when needed. This can be ideal for both airline use and to use with other devices.

Buy an airline headphone adapter!

Airlines use a 2 pin audio socket. Most headphones are not equipped to fit into this 2 pin socket. Some airlines will provide adapters, but it’s always a good idea to buy your own and have it at hand:

  • You can opt for better quality adapters (yes, the materials used will make a difference in audio quality)
  • you are not reliant on the airline handing out the adapters (and possibly running out)
  • some airlines don’t offer headphones (and adapters) immediately as you get on board.

Can my Kids use my Headphones?

Yes, they can, with care. However, it is best to buy headphones, specially made for children, for the reasons listed above.

If you are stuck and want your child to use your headphones temporarily monitor their usage and help make the headphone’s fit as comfortably as possible. (You may wind a scarf around the top of the band to improve the fit)
Here are some tips from an audiologist to keep them safe. These are especially important if your child is not using a good quality, child-specific headphone.

3 Tips from Audiologists to Encourage Healthy Hearing

Having the right headset is not a green light for us parents to step back and let the kids get on with listening to audio.

1) Reduce Time Spent on Headphones

The Australian Hearing Hub recommends using headphones for no longer than 90 minutes per day. As a parent, you can reduce hearing loss by reducing the amount of time your child spends on their headphones.

A great way to do this is by giving your child a limit of 30 minutes or 1 hour at a time. Some devices even have a time limit built-in so you can shut it off when it reaches the preset time.

This is not always practical when you are travelling, but do try to find a balance.

2) Monitor Safe Listening Levels

Yes, the sound limiter is, ideally, built in to the headphones, but still keep an eye (or in this case an ear) on the volume: A good rule of thumb is that if you can hear the sounds coming out of your child’s headphones while they are wearing them, the sound is too loud. Let your child know and ask them to lower the volume. (They may not realise this, as we humans get desensitised to )

Another option to monitor safe listening levels is to listen to the earphones yourself to see how loud the music is. If you find yourself raising your voice to have a conversation, the level is probably higher than 85 decibels.

3) Educate Your Child:

You need to play an active role in educating your child about safe listening levels. You can do this by discussing:

• How to determine if the sound is too loud? For example, if you cannot have a conversation while listening to music, the sound is too loud.

• How to determine headphone time limits? Ensure your child understands the importance of time limits and work with them to determine the best time limit.

• How to take breaks? Teach your child how to take breaks frequently and the importance of taking breaks from noise.

Remember, it is not enough to just be discussing this with your child. You also have to be a role model for safe listening.

What else to pack in the your child’s carry-on?

Have you come across any particularly good headphones for kids? Let us know about them and your experiences in the comments.

Monika Roozen

Monika is a mum of 3, an avid traveller, who grew up travelling the world and has continued travelling ever since. She holds a degree in animal sciences, nutrition and business administration and has consulted for several years for the hospitality industry and customer service departments. Monika loves slow travel- taking time for immersive experiences in culture and nature- sailing and snowboarding. Her personal adventures are chronicled in Inspireroo Family Travel Magazine . (Click to see their family mad ventures)

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