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White Noise for Babies- Is it Safe?

In the last few years, white noise has become another option in the already overcrowded baby space. White noise machine manufacturers claim they improve baby sleep, calm fractious crying and help to establish awake/sleep cycles.

White noise is also becoming popular for parents who are keen for their baby not to be disturbed by other noises.

But how true are the facts and can white noise actually cause more harm than good?

Read on to find out the facts and see what’s important to understand when it comes to white noise.

What exactly is white noise?

White noise is a sound which masks other sounds happening in an environment. White noise is produced by combining all the different frequencies of sound at once, so no one sound is clear and distinct from the others. It sounds fuzzy with no specific pitch. Some examples of white noise are a fan whirring in the background, a television with the sound down low or an air-conditioner humming away. White noise often sounds like a low, steady whirring, buzzing, humming or shushing and helps to block out other noises by its sound masking capabilities. There are also lots of white noise apps which can be downloaded onto a phone or tablet. Most are free and play continuously until they’re turned off.

What are the proposed benefits of white noise? 

One early study (1990) found that white noise could be helpful in assisting babies to go to sleep. Since then, there have been other studies which are less positive about the effects of white noise.

It’s important for parents to check current evidence before deciding what’s right for them and their baby.

  • White noise can be useful to block out other household noise. Children playing, environmental noise, dogs barking, loud music and traffic can all disturb a sleeping baby.
  • Some parents say their baby soon learned to how to associate sleep with white noise and that it works as a cue for sleep time. 
  • White noise is under parental control, when so much isn’t. It can be turned on or off, turned up or turned down – and be individualized according to the parent’s and baby’s wishes. 
  • It’s another ‘thing to try’ in the process of encouraging little people to go to sleep. 
  • Baby specific white noise machines often have a range of sounds to choose from. Background ‘shh-ing’ noises can have an overlay of music, lullabies or even a heartbeat to mimic sounds the baby was exposed to in utero. 
  • Some parents find that listening to white noise helps them to focus their attention elsewhere whilst they are settling their baby. For parents struggling with anxiety relating to their baby’s sleep/settling, white noise can be a calming influence. 
  • Some babies become so accustomed to noise that when their environment is completely quiet, they are more wakeful. Having consistent background white noise is less unsettling than complete silence.

What are the Disadvantages of White Noise?

White noise machines can increase the risk of noise-related hearing loss as they work on the principle of accumulated noise. When they’re played at a high volume, for a long period of time, the baby is exposed to noise which their developing ears are not designed for. The anatomy of their ear is very different to adults and long term hearing loss, as well as audio processing disorders is a possibility.   

  • Babies can become so accustomed to hearing white noise that when it’s absent, they can’t sleep. This means it can be very inconvenient to go away for a few days or, be in a situation where it’s just not possible to use white noise.
  • Buying a white noise machine can be costly. Though some are available for around $30, they can creep up in price to $100 or more.
  • Many parents are big believers in minimising the assistance they give their child to go off to sleep. Boosting self settling skills in infancy can be a good thing, adopting the mantra ‘start as you mean to go on’.
  • Not every baby likes white noise. Don’t assume your baby will respond positively to hearing it playing in their sleep space. Parents similarly, can become more than mildly irritated hearing a persistent ‘shh shh shh’ or sound of water running, especially mothers who are struggling with incontinence issues!
  • There have been concerns raised by researchers into potential problems with white noise contributing to auditory processing issues in children.

White Noise – is it Safe?

The big issue with white noise machines is that we don’t know yet what the long term effects of using them may be. They haven’t been around for long enough to give any definitive answers about harm. But we do know that a baby’s ear is different to an adult. One study attended in 2014 by researchers from The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto found that many of the white noise machines they tested, exceeded what could be considered a safe decibel range – at that time 50 decibels.

A range of sounds, emitting from a number of white noise machines were tested when placed at three distances from the baby’s head. All of those tested exceeded the recommendation of noise limits for babies in hospital nurseries (at that time). Even though this study was conducted a few years ago – there’s no proof that white noise machines currently available aren’t exceeding safe noise levels.

Perhaps the recommendation at the time of this study still has relevance - to keep white noise machines at least 200cms away from the baby’s cot, as far away from the baby as possible and importantly, set to the minimum or lowest possible volume.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), safe listening depends on the intensity (loudness), duration and frequency of exposure to sounds. All three of these factors combine to the sound energy level the ears are exposed to. The highest safe exposure level for adults is 85 decibels over eight hours.

Some researchers claim that white noise can lead to children developing auditory processing disorders. This is because the brain quickly adapts to the sound and stops acknowledging it as something worth listening to. The long term effects of this can lead to issues with learning, speech and language.

Audio processing disorders can contribute to a range of developmental and learning problems. In addition, it’s felt that exposure to white noise machines may put babies at risk of developing noise induced hearing loss or, as noted above, maldevelopment of the auditory (hearing) system.

How to Safely Use White Noise

First, think about other ways to soothe and settle your baby. Ideally, try not to use white noise but other ways to support your baby to go to sleep.

  • Always read the manufacturer’s directions and safety warnings.
  • Never put a white noise device, phone or tablet inside your baby’s cot.
  • Make sure the volume is set to low or the minimum sound level and never louder than this.
  • Use white noise only as a background sound, never in the foreground.
  • Be mindful of the intrusive nature of high volume sounds, especially when your baby is trying to sleep.
  • Aim for white noise level not to exceed a quiet conversation or a shower running.
  • Turn the white noise off once your baby is asleep.
  • Never place a white noise machine near your baby’s head or ears.
  • Place the white noise machine as far away as possible from your baby’s cot.
  • Turn the volume down or alternately, don’t turn it up to maximum.
  • Only use for settling periods, no longer than an hour and turn off white noise once your baby is asleep.
  • Try not to use a white noise machine for every sleep.
  • Speak with your Child Health Nurse, GP and/or baby’s paediatrician about current research around white noise and the risks of using it.  

References

Written for Safe Sleep Space by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse.

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