Noisy toys are about to get noisier

It was the T. rex that chased Rebecca Smith over the edge. Her son, age 3, would make the dinosaur roar over and over and over again, a cinematic cry that filled the house and made her head pound.

One day, the dinosaur — a gift from an uncle who, incidentally, does not have children — decided to go on a trip. It was never seen (or heard from) again.

“It was louder than what I would have on my TV, and he would just keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it and pushing it,” said Smith, 27, who lives in Abilene, Texas. “I don’t want anything to happen to his ears, and I’m thinking, mine are hurting, and I’m way over here. So how is it when he’s right there next to it?”

The screeching and roaring and wailing of noisy toys is driving parents to desperate measures, and it’s about to get worse, as new guidelines go into effect April 20 that allow some toys — push and pull toys, specifically — to turn up the volume. From packing tape to cotton packing to hands-on seminars, parents are finding ways to tone down the toys; a spokesperson for the American Academy of Audiology, when contacted for this story, mentioned that her neighbor actually drove his car over a toy in a final attempt to shut it up.

Somehow, the batteries “died or disappeared” from an entire shelf of trucks, fire engines and police cars at Laurie Masino’s house in Atlantic City, magically silencing the deafening sirens. But there is one toy — the Cocomelon Toy Microphone, which comes with an “amplify” button — so grating that it has been banished to the basement, she said.

Masino, a 40-year-old English teacher, said many of the educational toys now come with a volume setting, but her boys, age 5 and 2, automatically set it to loud, and truly, she can’t tell the difference. As she spoke, a particularly loud owl behind her continued to talk on and off sporadically.

“The toys that will come alive in the night, those are the ones that are actually terrifying,” she said.

Most children are naturally drawn to loud noises as the brain learns to predict cause and response, and that’s why they will smash a pan or hit a blaring siren over and over, said Andrew Garner, a pediatrician with a doctorate in neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The sound usually catches someone’s attention, and they like that, too, he said.

“From a neuroscience perspective, there’s joy for children when they’re able to predict what’s going to happen next,” he said. “You can see that when you play peekaboo: If you pretty much do anything repeatedly, and they know what’s coming, they get excited — ooh, I know what’s coming, I know what’s gonna happen!”

He added that as kids get older, they may play sounds they specifically know will annoy their parents.

Toys that play sounds have been around since Thomas Edison’s Talking Doll in 1887 and gained popularity with 1959’s Chatty Cathy, which said “I love you” when a string was pulled. While it might seem that toys are getting louder, they have been loud for a long time, said Kathy Webb, executive director of the Sight & Hearing Association. The group, which is shutting down this year, started testing toys in the late 1990s.

“We used a handheld noise level meter, but with smartphones now, anyone can download an app and test themselves,” she said in an email.

The association put out a “noisy toy” list until 2021 in an attempt to educate (or warn) parents. Many of the toys are over 85 decibels, including the top contender, Disney Moana Squeeze and Scream HeiHei, which reached 109 decibels close up and 94 decibels from 10 inches away.

The group contacted toy companies to work with them on lowering the noise level but never heard back, she said. The Washington Post tried to get in touch with Hasbro, which makes Tickle Me Elmo, variations of which appeared on several of the group’s loudest toy lists, as well as JAKKS Pacific, which makes the screaming HeiHei. Neither responded to requests for comment.

In general, sound specialists say anything over 85 decibels for a long period of time can be problematic, but that’s based on a 1972 Occupational Safety and Health Administration study of adults, said American Academy of Audiology President Bopanna Ballachanda. Ballachanda, who has a doctorate in audiology neuroscience, said he’d be more comfortable with toys around the 70- to 72-decibel mark.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission works with ASTM International, which tests toys for noise levels, but it was unclear how toys that were above the decibel limit landed on shelves, and ASTM officials were not willing to answer questions in an interview.

In the meantime, parents are doing what they must to knock the screaming and siren levels down, which is particularly challenging if there is no outside speaker that can be muffled by tape.

That’s why Steve McLaughlin, owner of Iffy Books in Philadelphia, started offering a “toy quieting workshop” before and after the holiday season. For McLaughlin, who has a 5-year-old daughter, it was a screaming llama that “inspired” him to start the workshop.

“It was a walking llama, and it was fuzzy and had a leash attached, and there had to be a design oversight, because it was so loud it made my ears hurt,” he said. “This llama was a problem, and it moved to the top of my closet, and I would see it peeking down at me.”

At his workshop, McLaughlin demonstrates how to open a toy up and add a resistor, which cuts down the noise. Emily Boda, 28, doesn’t have children of her own, but as a mechanical engineer, she was curious about the process and offered to help neighbors with problem toys at both last year’s and this year’s workshop. Last year, she received three noisy toys and managed to quiet them all.

This year, Boda received four toys, including a book that made farm noises, an owl that swayed side to side, and a toy video game controller with knobs and switches.

“We only managed to quiet two out of the four,” she said. “I was surprised at how much more difficult they were to fix — maybe they were just better made, which made them harder to take apart.”

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