I use white noise in my children's bedrooms. I recommend it to my clients to help their little ones get to sleep independently and stay asleep all night.
But is it safe?
Here's the short answer: probably, but it depends.
White noise - like ocean-wave sounds or a fan - can help block out household noise that either prevents babies from falling asleep or wakes them prematurely. Some say it's a soothing sound that can help lull them into sleep. I'm not so sure about that - we can't ask the babies.
But how much is too much?
It's not clear whether a baby's threshold for noise-induced hearing loss is lower than that for adults, but as a conservative measure, neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are recommended to keep ambient noise levels to 50 dB-A (a-weighted decibels) or less. (FYI that’s really quiet – the ambient noise in my home with computer on and refrigerator humming is higher than that.)
A recent study published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that of 14 infant-sound machines tested, all of them were able to reach noise levels over 50 dB-A. No surprise there – it has to make some noise.
But what's concerning is that several of them, when placed on the crib rail, were able to produce sounds exceeding 85 dB-A at baby’s level. That's over the limit for adult occupational noise – the level at which hearing damage is known to occur on chronic exposure (picture the guy who spends 8 hours a day operating a jackhammer).
Before you panic and run to turn off the fan in your baby's room, 85 decibels is really loud.
When I first read this study, I did panic, and I did run to turn off the running-water-sound device in my daughter’s room. At the time I read it, she had been suffering from obvious hearing loss (which we had initially thought was selective toddler hearing, until we started testing her by offering chocolate and videos, to no response). Turns out she had a middle ear full of fluid; her hearing resolved as her head cold cleared, but not before I brought up my concerns about white noise with my family doctor.
His immediate thoughts were that a) I was crazy, and that b) the white noise would have to be insanely loud to cause hearing damage. A few days later, he bumped into a colleague specializing in Pediatric Ear Nose Throat and asked her about it. Her answer was that there was no way my daughter’s hearing loss could have been caused by white noise.
Sigh of relief (and shedding of massive amounts of useless guilt). But I still turned our white noise down, and I follow the Pediatrics article’s recommendations of keeping the machine on the opposite side of the room from our child’s bed and turning it down or off when my husband and I go to bed and the house is quiet. (See below for the researchers’ recommendations.)
Now, what about creating a dependency on white noise? I get this question a lot when I recommend it in seminars or to clients. White noise is not what we call a “prop” – an external person or object (like a pacifier or Mom in the rocking chair) that baby doesn’t know how to sleep without.
It’s also easy to wean. Once babies have solid sleep skills – they can fall asleep independently and soothe themselves right back to sleep as they stir in the night – you can gradually turn the white noise down over the course of weeks or months.
In the meantime, I am still recommending it. My doctor can probably find lots of other reasons to think I’m crazy.
Not sure how loud your white noise is? Download a decibel-meter app on your phone and place it next to your sleeping child while your white noise is on.
Recommendations from the Pediatrics February 2014 study:
1. Place the ISM as far away as possible from the infant and never in the crib or on a crib rail.
2. Play the ISM at a low volume.
3. Operate the ISM for a short duration of time.