White Noise Machines

I think a lot of parents experience a new level of fear when their little one is born. This precious, fragile little thing is suddenly all your responsibility, and daily life can become a mind-bending series of risk calculations. 

It’s one thing to be fearless when it’s your own safety or well-being on the line, but once you have kids, the fear that something is going to happen to them is absolutely paralysing.

And every so often headlines will do the rounds online proclaiming some popular baby-related thing is actually not harmless but in fact extremely dangerous. As a parent, seeing articles about something you use with your kids can make your heart sink to your stomach. 

White noise machines are one such thing. Not only did I use a white noise machine with my own kids, but I’ve recommended them several times to clients who were having issues with environmental noise waking their kids up during the day or early in the morning. So yeah, I've had that freaked out moment seeing an article like that.

Sometimes it's even reputable news sources that are making these claims. However, it's all too often the case that the headlines are inflammatory and misleading, meant to scare parents into clicking on the headline.

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. These parental fear-stoking stories that come from the occasionally irresponsible media channels often follow a similar pattern. They 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.”

So let’s unpack the use of white noise machines, shall we? Articles will often cite studies that claim white noise machines carry a risk of noise-induced hearing loss. The studies they refer to have usually tested a dozen or so 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. In one study, 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, 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 metre. 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 one university's handy little 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! Some machines in the study, it turns out, were capable of putting out more than 85 dB of white noise. That’s closer to the level of a  blender, and it’s the point where 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 machines on full blast near your baby’s cot, and that’s probably 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 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  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.

2. 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 come 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, paediatrician, 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 prioritise 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.

So let's talk about some specific white noise tips to help your little one sleep better:

There's no one brand that I recommend to my clients – honestly even an old iPad or iPhone with a Spotify white noise playlist will do the trick! Just be sure to place it away from the cot: don't keep it beside or under the bed.

The main thing you need to keep in mind when using a white noise machine to help your little one sleep is that it needs to be on for the entire duration of sleep. That means don't just put it on when baby is put to bed and let it time-out and switch off. While a self-timer can be useful, we want to make sure that the white noise is on the whole time your little one is supposed to be sleeping. 

The whole point of a white noise machine is to block out sudden loud noises – like a dog barking, or your doorbell going off for your fifteenth package delivery that week!

Keeping the white noise machine on the whole time helps to maintain a stable sleep environment so that when your little one rouses slightly between sleep cycles they can easily slip back into that deeper sleep without being disturbed. 

You don't have to use a white noise machine, it's by no means mandatory if your child is already sleeping pretty consistently. But if you find your child is easily woken – especially during naps – then a white noise machine is a great way to introduce more consistency into your sleep environment and encourage positive sleep associations that will help your little one go back to sleep by themselves when woken. 

You can find more tips about optimal sleep environments in my other blog about how to create a sleep sanctuary for your child!

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