As a sleep expert, I get so many questions from first time parents about white noise. Why should I use a white noise machine? Is it true that it causes brain damage? Is it safe? Is it considered a sleep prop? Will my child continue to sleep even when I stop using it?
Not only did I use a white noise machine with my own daughter, but I often recommend them to clients who were having issues with environmental noise waking their kids up during the day or early in the morning. Additionally, I often praise parents for using a white noise machine consistently because let’s face it, we can’t always keep a super quiet sleep environment- a squeaky floor board, an alarm going off in the morning, birds chirping, and so on.
So when I saw the online buzz about a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association about white noise machines and the harmful effects it may have, I felt my heart sink into my stomach- I’m sure just like many of you. These were, after all, reputable news sources that were making these claims.
But then I realized that too often, headlines are inflammatory and misleading; what is considered “clickbait”. And that is exactly the feeling I got after reading the article and the study it was actually based on.
Now, I don’t have a degree in audiology, so I can’t claim to speak from a position of authority here, but I do know how to debunk a news story, and to me, this seems like more parental fear-stoking from the occasionally irresponsible media channels who like to start off with a scary headline, dive into all of the potential harm that something could be doing to your child, then throw a quiet one-liner into the last paragraph along the lines of, “Most experts agree that, if you employ the slightest modicum of common sense, this isn’t something you need to worry about,” and that certainly seems to be the case here.
So let’s unpack this story that’s been causing so many parents to send me a private message in the middle of the night and toss their machines into the trash, shall we?
The article in USA Today starts off 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, mimicking the various locations in baby’s room that the machine might be located.
The results? All 14 machines exceeded 50 decibels at 100 centimeters 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, but wait. How loud is 50 decibels?
I was actually kind of interested in how the decibel measurement system works once I started looking into this. I was under the impression that a decibel was kind of 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.
But 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 handy little cheat sheet.
So it would seem that the reason pediatric 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 level of a garbage disposal or 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, and that’s probably worth letting parents know about, but I have two thoughts here.
- 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. Fire that bad boy up in your room and see how well it “blocks out” the environmental noise. I mean c’mon. Let’s be honest about how well any of us sleep next to a lawnmower or with downshifting diesel trucks driving past our bedroom windows. 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 overnight.
- Warning parents about the potential harm of white noise machines can be done in a responsible, non-panic-inducing manner. Just like we would expect our doctors and nurses to be at least slightly sensitive to the way they deliver news of “what could potentially happen”.
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, and try to cause a panic in order to get some clicks on their website. 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, just because they saw an inflammatory headline and didn’t read the fine print.
And the one thing that every parent, pediatrician, scientific researcher, and academics of all stripes can agree on, is that we all need sleep. It’s undisputed. We suffer without it and we thrive when we prioritize it. 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.