Please Keep Your White Noise Machine

As a pediatric sleep consultant, I pride myself on staying up to date on the latest and safest sleep recommendations, so when I saw the online buzz about a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association about the harmful effects of white noise machines, I felt my heart sink to my stomach. I frequently recommend white noise machines to clients who have environmental noise waking up their little ones early in the morning or throughout the day, so yes, I was freaked out. After all, these were reputable news sources making these claims.

However, as is all too often the case, the headlines were inflammatory and drastically misleading. After reading the article and looking further into the studies it referenced, I discovered that in actuality the headlines were “click-bait” meant to scare parents into clicking on the link.

While I do not have a degree in audiology, I do have a background in research methods and know a thing or two about debunking a news story. To me, this was a quintessential article fear-mongering article meant to terrify parents. It began with a classic worry-inducing headline, went on to list a few points about the potential harm that [insert any topic here] could be doing to your child, and ended with a one-liner in the last paragraph essentially stating that “Most experts agree that if you have even the slightest modicum of common sense, this isn’t something you need to worry about.”

Let’s unpack the story that have so many parents tossing their noise machines in the trash, shall we?

Is My White Noise Machine Safe For My Baby?

The article in USA Today starts with the headline, “Caution Urged for Infant Sleep Machines!” and by the second sentence, claims that a study shows that white noise machines, “could place infants at risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss.” The study they’re referring to tested 14 different machines along with the volume of noise emitted at different distances.

The results? All 14 machines exceeded 50 decibels at 100 centimeters from the sensor (50 decibels being the recommended noise limit for hospital nurseries). So, if hospital nurseries set sound machines to 50 decibels, and every one tested exceeded that, does that mean there is not a sound machine on the market that does not damage a baby’s hearing? Well, wait, how loud is 50 decibels?

 To avoid going into all the painfully boring details of how decibels work, I’ll just tell you this:

  • A vacuum cleaner is 75 decibels

  • A shower is around 70 decibels

  • A normal conversation is about 60 decibels

  • And a quiet conversation at home is around 50 decibels

So, using a bit of logic, it would seem that the reason pediatric nurseries are suggested to keep the noise below 50 decibels has more to do with creating a sleep-friendly environment than preventing hearing loss. The lull of a quiet conversation is definitely not enough to do any type of hearing damage! I think we all can agree on that!

But My Sound Machine Goes Up To Over 85 Decibels!

It was found that three of the noise machines tested were capable of putting out more than 85 decibels of white noise. That’s closer to the level of a garbage disposal or blender and is 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 work day.

So, it sounds like there is potential for hearing damage should you put one of these three sound machines on at full blast and place it right next to your baby’s crib for long periods of time. I’ll admit, that’s worth letting parents know about. But I have two thoughts here:

  1. If you turn on a blender-level noise machine on maximum volume in your baby’s room and expect them to sleep, I think you need to try that little experiment on yourself first. Let’s be honest about how many of us can sleep well – if at all – next to a lawnmower or when your husband is making his morning smoothie. I would think that common sense would prevent parents from cranking these things to level 11 and leaving them next to baby’s head overnight.

  2. Warning parents about the potential harm of white noise machines can be done in a calm, non-panic-inducing manner.

Keep Your Sound Machine!

I try not to let it get to me, but it really does drive me absolutely 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 on how to use them safely – and try to cause a panic in order to draw “numbers” to their website. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that this has caused at least a few parents, who are of course extremely concerned about protecting their babies, to throw away a great product that helps their little one get the sleep they need just because of some inflammatory headline with a bit of fine print.

The one thing that every parent, pediatrician, scientific researcher, and academic can agree upon is that we all need sleep. It is a basic human requirement.  We suffer without it and we thrive when we prioritize it. If your little one sleeps better when you have a white noise machine between their crib and the door or window, please don’t buy into the idea that you might be damaging their ear drums.

As long as you’re keeping the volume at a reasonable level, all you’re doing is helping them get the sleep they need.

If you are concerned about the decibel level of your sound machine, I’d recommend downloading the Decibel X app on your smart phone to give you some peace of mind & give everyone a good night’s sleep!