Parents have a lot to worry about when it comes to things that might be bad for their baby, and now we might have to add white noise machines to the list. Before you go and throw yours away though, bear in mind that this study – like any other study – is limited as far what it can claim goes.
White noise machines are great for parents and kids. Many parents swear by them and their effectiveness at helping kids to get to sleep. Even just the sound of an oscillating fan can work wonders. All the best parenting websites and pediatricians recommend using them, as do most other parents in your social circle. It’s suggested that they should be left on all night for the first year to get the most out of them.
Now some study published in Pediatrics makes claims that aim to silence the white noise machines and their fans. After taking a look at the maximum output of white noise machines, the people behind the study claim that they could potentially harm a baby rather than help them.
Pediatric ear surgeon and researcher Blake Papsin, who works with the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, became interested in the white noise machines after entering a patient’s room and being hit with the sound of white noise. His patient told him that it helped the baby sleep. When he next visited the patient he took a sound pressure meter and found the machine was hitting 85 decibels, the sound that loud high dryers reach.
Papsin was curious about the latest parenting device and so purchased 14 commercial white noise machines developed and marketed towards babies. They tested the maximum noise output of the machines. He says that out of all the machines, three produced sounds so loud it was hazardous. The machines were tested at a distance of 30 meters so as to better mimic the placement of a crib. They pumped out sounds over 85 decibels, which is the limit for workplace safety. Government regulations require adults working in environments louder than this to wear protection for their ears.
These machines were the worst of the bunch, but every machine in the study was able to produce over 50 decibels of noise, which is the limit for safety in hospital nurseries. Those high levels were reached from distances of 30 and 100 centimeters (to mimic the device being placed near a crib), according to the team. All of the machines bar one were producing over 50 decibels of noise from over 200 centimeters.
Given the potential damage these noise levels can do, Papsin recommended that regulations be put in place to prevent such machines from generating over 85 decibels of noise, and suggested the machines be built with automatic shutdowns. He would also like there to be warnings placed on the devices that urge parents they should use them at low volumes for short amounts of time.
Before you get scared and throw your white noise machines away though, consider the other side of things. Another pediatrician, Harvey Karp, member of the University of Southern California, describes the recommendations as incorrect. Karp says that the authors of the study took some accurate information and then came to an incorrect conclusion with it. Karp advocates using white noise machines for babies as part of his parenting book The Happiest Baby on the Block.
Karp agrees that babies shouldn’t be hit with loud noises all through the night, but there’s no evidence to suggest that a more moderate sound, around 65-70 decibels (about how much noise a shower generates) can be considered harmful.
What can be harmful though, according to Karp, is eliminating a safe, proven effective tool that parents can use to help their babies – not to mention themselves – sleep. Sleep deprivation is far more dangerous. A sleep-deprived parent is more likely to do something dangerous like sleep with their baby and put them to sleep resting on their stomach, which has been shown to cause infant death.
It’s certainly good to suggest that it’s possible to misuse white noise machines for babies, and the report has added to the conversation, but the conclusions are all wrong. They are even contrary to public health. There’s no evidence parents should be afraid to use their white noise machines on a moderate setting when sleeping.
So what can parents do now? Well, there aren’t many studies – if any – into how moderate levels of white noise affects babies. With that said, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that white noise helps parents and their children sleep better at night. Now we’ve got some new information suggesting these machines could be dangerous if left too high for too long. Right now though, it’s a bit premature to suggest all parents should ditch their noise machines. Just remember the golden rule; everything in moderation.