White noise can be useful in helping babies get to sleep (and stay asleep), and sleep machines or apps that emits this noise can be found in many homes with babies.
But what might not be so well understood are the potential hazards of using white noise in your baby’s sleep environment. In fact, studies conducted over the last few years have suggested the way some white noise machines are used could be harmful to your baby’s hearing.
What is white noise?
Technically speaking, white noise is a sound that contains every sound frequency in equal amounts. It resembles TV or radio static – a sound most of us adults would want to get rid of as soon as possible. But for babies, this has the opposite effect. The constant noise can resemble the sound experienced in the womb, which babies are hard-wired to be soothed by.
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How is it used?
White noise can be used to help lull babies to sleep as well as mask other noises in the house and surrounds. For example, the sounds of other children in the house, the vacuum, or noisy traffic outside. Many parents report that the use of white noise has been helpful in getting a baby to fall to sleep and stay asleep through other noise.
But is it safe?
White noise machines can be safe for baby as long as they are used correctly. In a study of 14 commercial noise machines, three of them were found to emit over 85 decibels when placed at a distance of 30 centimetres (i.e. in baby’s cot), the limit set as safe for workplaces. Eighty-five decibels of sound is equivalent to listening to a hair dryer or blender. Listening to noise at this level over long periods of time can be harmful to hearing, particularly for delicate newborn ears. When these machines were placed outside of the cot, they were still found to exceed 50 decibels, the level considered safe in baby nurseries.
The findings have experts suggesting that white noise apps be monitored closely for sound and limited in their use. But while the results might sound alarming, it’s still possible to use a white noise machine in a safe way for your baby.
Tips for safe use
1. Measure the decibels yourself
You can use an app to measure the noise emitted by your white noise machine to test whether it exceeds safe noise levels. While some sleep experts may suggest it needs to be loud to be effective, your baby is still likely to benefit from white noise at a modest volume. Ensure that the volume is always set for below 50 decibels.
2. Move it away from the cot
Use the machine at least two metres away from your baby’s sleep space. Avoid putting the sleep machine in your baby’s cot, or tying it to the rails of the cot (often recommended with some sleep machines).
3. Turn it off
Avoid using white noise for long periods of time. A good rule of thumb is to turn it off before you go to bed at night, or once your baby has nodded off to sleep.