There has been a lot of recent media attention on the effect of white noise and babies. More specifically I recently read about a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This was about the potential harmful effects of white noise machines on a baby's hearing. As I was reading this I remember feeling my heart sink into my stomach.
Not only did I use a white noise machine with my own kids, but I’ve recommended them several times to clients. Specifically, for those families who were having issues with environmental noise waking their kids up during the day or early the morning.
....As is all too often, headlines are meant to be inflammatory and definitely misleading. We know that they are meant to scare parents into clicking on the headline and reading further. At least that was the feeling I got after reading the article and the study it was based on. I know I don’t have a degree in audiology, but I do know how to debunk a news story. So, let’s unpack this story that’s been causing so many parents to panic.
Let's take for example article in the daily mail with the headline “Caution Urged for Infant Sleep Machines!” and by the second sentence, claims that a new study shows white noise machines, “could place infants at risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss.” The study they’re referring to tested 14 different machines and tested the volume of the noise they put out at different distances from the sound meter. This mimicked the various locations in baby’s room that the machine might be located. The results? All 14 machines exceeded 50 decibels at 100 centimetres from the sensor. 50 decibels being the recommended noise limit for hospital nurseries.
Yikes! All of them? There’s not a machine on the market that won’t damage your baby’s hearing? Well, that’s certainly the impression you might get from reading the article. Let's just take a step back and work out exactly how loud is 50 decibels actually is.
I was under the impression that a decibel like a pound or a meter. By that, I mean that 2 is twice as much as 1, and that ten was half as much as twenty, and so on. So working on the knowledge that a vacuum cleaner runs at about 70 decibels, I assumed that 50 would be, you know, about two thirds as loud as that.
I was wrong. 50 decibels is actually one quarter as loud as 70. It’s about
the same volume as a quiet conversation at home or a quiet suburb,
according to Purdue University’s cheat sheet. So it would seem that the
reason paediatric nurseries are suggested to keep the noise down below
50 dB is more to do with creating a sleep-friendly environment than
preventing hearing loss. It’s definitely not loud enough to do any kind of damage.
But wait! 3 of these machines, it turns out, were capable of putting out
more than 85 dB of white noise. That’s closer to the noise level of a
blender, and it’s the point where North American occupational health
and safety associations recommend that people wear hearing protection
if they’re exposed to it for a full workday. So I’ll admit, there’s potential
for some hearing damage if you were to put one of those three machines on full blast near your baby’s crib. However, if you turn on a blender
level noise machine on maximum volume in your baby’s room and
expect it to help them sleep, I think you need to try it on yourself first!
Let’s be honest about how well any of us sleep next to a lawnmower.
I would think, for the most part, common sense would prevent parents
from cranking these things to 11 and leaving them in baby’s room
Warning parents about the potential harm of white noise machines can
be done in a responsible, non-panic-inducing manner. I try not to let it get to me, but it really does drive me crazy when media outlets take a
perfectly rational study like this one, whose only conclusion is to suggest
that the machines should ship with some kind of instructions about how
to use them safely. Then try to cause a panic in order to get some clicks on
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that this has caused at least a few parents, who are naturally extremely concerned about protecting their babies, to throw away a great product that helps their little ones get the sleep they need, And the one thing that every parent, paediatrician, scientific researcher, and academics of all kinds can agree on, is that we all need sleep. It’s undisputed. So if your little one sleeps better when you have a white noise machine by their bed, don’t buy into the idea that you might be damaging their eardrums. As long as you’re keeping the volume at a reasonable level, you’re probably just helping them get the sleep they need.