When you tell your 5-year-old it's time for bed and she immediately puts her hands over her ears and starts humming a tune to herself, it's safe to say she's ignoring you and your big bedtime plans. But why do toddlers cover their ears? It’s not always because they don’t want to listen.
“Your typical 2-year-old generally will not cover their ears to not listen,” Elizabeth Dick, a pediatric nurse, tells Romper. The not so great news? “They will just not listen and keep doing whatever they're doing,” she adds, which sounds about right in my experience. If your child doesn’t want to hear what you or another caregiver is saying, Dick says that may cover their entire head with their arms or bury their head in “a blanket or pillow to block everything out.” Fun.
More commonly, the reason that toddlers cover their ears is routed more in self-soothing than in sheer defiance. It’s more common for toddlers to cover their ears when they’re overwhelmed, overstimulated, or sensitive to loud noises, Whitney Casares, pediatrician and author of The New Baby Blueprint: Caring for You and Your Little One tells Romper. You may notice that they do this if they feel scared or even embarrassed.
“Toddlers often will resort to covering their ears or even their whole head when they are anxious, scared, or even angry. It's self-preservation behavior. They feel safer in that position,” Dick says. "It would usually only be something to worry about if there are other physical symptoms or behaviors going on as well.”
In some cases, this could be a sign that their ears hurt, though children are more likely to pull on sore ears or wince than to cover them entirely, according to Casares. If they’re getting an ear infection or are in pain, “there will be other symptoms or behaviors as well such as increased irritability, balance issues, trouble sleeping, or fevers,” Dick tells Romper.
Toddlers also generally have excellent hearing, unless they have been diagnosed with a hearing impairment. “They hear better than adults,” Dick says, “so it’s not abnormal for an otherwise typically developing toddler to be more sensitive to noises that may not seem that loud to an adult or older child, and cover their ears.” You may notice this especially if someone is speaking loudly, at the movie theatre, or if the TV volume is a bit high.
If you do feel concerned about something your toddler is doing from a behavioral standpoint (like covering their ears), Dick suggests keeping a log of when your toddler does the behavior, noting the time of day and other related behaviors or events leading up to it. “This can give a lot of insight into the reason behind the behavior and help you or the child's pediatrician determine if there is something else that needs to be looked into,” she says. And sometimes auditory sensitivities can be a sign of autism, as occupational therapist Shelley O’Donnell explained in a post for the Seattle Children’s Hospital autism blog. “Many children with autism have auditory sensitivities to specific sounds, such as a fire engine, baby crying, or toilet flushing. Covering their ears is one way to lessen the auditory input,” O’Donnell said.
“If a child starts consistently covering her ears without any obvious explanation for the new behavior, it makes sense to have her evaluated by her pediatrician,” Casares tells Romper. But in many cases, this behavior is not something to worry about. "Toddlers cover and play with their ears for many benign reasons," Dick says. "They're learning how their body works and how it works with the environment, so it's not abnormal for them to be preoccupied with a body part like their ears."
Whitney Casares, M.D., MPH, FAAP, author of The New Baby Blueprint: Caring for You and Your Little One and host of The Modern Mommy Doc Podcast
Elizabeth Dick, RNC, Pediatric Nurse at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, Calif.