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Are White Noise Machines Safe?

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

You may have heard somewhere that white noise machines can cause harm to a baby's hearing.

You may have clicked a link or shared the post on social media to warn other parents that white noise machines can cause damage!

I totally, get it. I would share that too.

So let's take a quick second to talk about white noise machines and see what all the fuss is about.

There was a recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Association about the harmful effects of white noise machines. When I heard about this, my heart sank.

Not only do I use white noise for myself and my children, but I recommend it for clients who are having issues with environmental noise waking up their kids early in the morning or cutting their nap too short.

The parent who wakes up early to shower. The neighbor's dog. The garbage truck. Etc. Etc.

So what does the online buzz and study say?

The article that was floating around 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.

The result? All 14 machines exceeded 50 decibels at 100 centimeters from the sensor; 50 decibels being the recommended noise limit for hospital nurseries.

Yikes! All 14 machines? There's not a machine on the market that won't damage your baby's hearing? Well, that's the impression you get from reading the article.

But wait, how loud is 50 decibels?

I was somewhat interested in how decibels measurements work as I started to look into this. I was under the impression that a decibel was like a pound or a meter.

What I mean by that is 2 is twice as much as 1 and 10 was half as much as 20, and so on.

So working on the idea that a vacuum cleaner runs at about 70 decibels, I assumed that 50 would be, you know, about 2/3's as loud as that.

But that's not how it works.

50 decibels is only 1/4 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.

Thinking back to hospital nurseries, the reason why it's suggested to keep it below 50 decibels has more to do with creating a sleep-friendly environment than preventing any hearing damage.

But wait!

3 of these machines mentioned in the study were capable of putting out more than 85 decibels! That's closer to the level of a garbage disposal or blender, and it's the point where occupational health and safety suggest wearing hearing protection if they are exposed to it for a full workday.

So yes, there is a potential for some hearing damage if you were to put one of those machines on full blast near your baby's crib, 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 a downshifting diesel truck driving past our bedroom window. I would think, for the most part, common sense would prevent parents from cranking these things to full blast and leaving them in the 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.

Unfortunately, the media can at times, take a perfectly rational study like this one, whose conclusion is to suggest that they send along an instruction manual about how to safely use them and try to cause panic in order to get some clicks to their website.

I wouldn't be surprised if many 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 one thing that every parent, pediatrician, scientific researcher, and academics of all sorts can agree on, is that we all need sleep.

That's a fact.

(There's this great book call 'Sleep Thief' By David Buchholz & Virginia Wilson if you're really curious about how sleep works and why we need it)

We suffer without it and we thrive when we prioritize it.

So if your baby sleeps better when you have a noise machine by their bed, don't buy into the idea that you might be damaging their eardrums.

As long as you keep the volume at a reasonable level, you've probably just helped them get the sleep they need.

Okay, so if now you are very curious as to how loud your baby's sound machine is, you can download a free app on your phone and check it out your machine.

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