In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, Rihanna teased about which guest artist might join her long-awaited halftime performance. Seconds into the show, the secret was revealed: baby #2.
It wasn’t long before fans flooded social media with jokes about how Rihanna’s baby was holding up as its mom danced to some of her biggest hits, portions of which were performed while suspended hundreds of feet in the air.
Video animations and GIFS of babies grooving in the womb, being tossed around like a rag doll, and just simply being confused about all the commotion got hundreds of likes — all of which prompts the question: what could baby Riri actually hear in her belly, and is a performance as big as the Super Bowl halftime show safe for a fetus?
As far as safety is concerned, pregnant people can enjoy concerts and, yes, even perform in them, according to Regina Zappi, associate director of audiology practices with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
“When going to a loud concert while pregnant, mothers should think about protecting both their hearing and their baby’s hearing. An easy thing to remember is, if it’s too loud for mom, it is also too loud for baby,” Zappi said. “Time, loudness, and distance matter. And when it gets too loud for too long, the best way to protect both sets of ears is to physically remove yourself from the loud noise and take a listening break.”
Rihanna sported a musician’s earpiece during her performance, which Zappi said not only allowed her to hear the music better, but also served as a form of hearing protection.
In theory, loud noises could damage a baby’s hearing and stress a parent out enough to affect a baby’s development, Zappi said; however “this does not mean that pregnant women need to avoid all noisy situations altogether.”
“At a concert for example, positioning yourself away from loud noise sources such as speakers (at least 500 feet) helps to protect both sets of ears and allows you to enjoy the music,” Zappi said. “Taking these precautions will keep you safe while you enjoy the music.”
Babies can begin to detect limited sounds inside and outside the womb around four months of pregnancy, Zappi said, and by about six months, they will have already developed their hearing system, which comprises the outer, middle, and inner ear. At this point, they can hear their parent’s heartbeat, growling stomach, and blood flow through the umbilical cord, as well as noises that occur outside the body, such as their parent’s voices and music.
That’s not to say baby Riri or any other baby of a Rihanna-loving parent can clearly sing along to Bitch Better Have My Money.
“Between the protective barrier of the womb and the fluid-filled home, what baby hears compared to what mom hears is quieter and more muffled,” Zappi said. (Fetuses are cushioned in amniotic fluid, which can help protect against noise.)
It’s not clear what noise levels are safe during pregnancy, but the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends that pregnant people avoid regular exposure to noises louder than 115 decibels, which is about as loud as a chainsaw.
Loud entertainment venues like nightclubs, bars, and rock concerts ring in anywhere between 105 to 110 decibels, according to the CDC. At 110 decibels, exposure can result in some degree of hearing loss in less than two minutes although sustained, routine, or repeated exposures are the bigger risk. For comparison, a whisper is about 30 decibels, city traffic about 80, a motorcycle about 95, and firecrackers about 145.
(The CDC says that noises above 70 decibels over a prolonged period can start to damage your ears, so it’s best to stay below that level if possible.)
In addition to hearing loss, research shows that prolonged noise exposure in the womb has been associated with low birth weight, high blood pressure, reduced cognitive function, and inability to concentrate in children. It’s important to remember, however, that these are just associations and do not prove cause and effect.
Zappi said the best way for parents to protect their hearing and that of their children, whether in the womb or out, is to be aware of their exposure levels and the tools they can use to minimize damage to their ears.
“If you start to experience any shifts in your hearing, ringing in your ears, or a headache, that is your body’s way of telling you that you may need a listening break,” Zappi said. “Stepping outside for a few minutes and giving your ears a break can go a long way in protecting your hearing.”
You can download a free sound meter app to your smartphone that can alert you if you’re around dangerously loud sounds, Zappi said. You can also wear well-fitted headphones with foam or musician’s ear plugs. And if you’re pregnant and your environment exceeds 115 decibels, “the best thing to do is remove yourself from the situation and take a listening break,” she said.
Infant-sized earmuffs can protect your baby too (not to mention they’re so cute).
The CDC also recommends you avoid low frequency sounds, those that you can feel as a rumble or vibration, because they can “cause changes that could affect your developing baby.” This means you’ll want to avoid leaning against or putting your body on speakers playing music.
“If you have any concerns about your hearing ability after exposure to loud noise, it is important to get your hearing checked by an audiologist. Hearing loss is far from just a nuisance left untreated: it is associated with a variety of serious health conditions in adults, including cognitive decline and dementia, falls, and social isolation and depression,” Zappi said. “For infants and toddlers, if hearing loss is unaddressed, it can affect their speech and language development — so it’s always important to pay attention to get a hearing evaluation from a certified audiologist if you have concerns.”