Posted: May 21, 2014 8:00 AM
 
It’s one of the best-known ways to help your baby sleep through the night — the white noise machine. The seemingly undetected noise may help your baby sleep, but at what cost? New studies seem to indicate they may contribute to hearing loss.
Photo credit: Wild Horse Photography/ Moment/ Getty Images

Have you ever successfully put a baby down for a nap and quietly tiptoed away? Then you know — parents and caregivers will go to great lengths to make sure that a sleeping baby stays asleep. There are two schools of thought about noise-making and babies. On one side, parents advocate making as much noise as necessary so that Baby learns to sleep through it. The others insist that the home must be eerily quiet when the baby is asleep — often even refusing to answer the phone or flush the toilet. Somewhere between the two camps lies the white noise machine.

What is white noise, anyway?

When noises wake you — or your baby — it isn't really the actual noise that startles you, but the sudden change in noise consistency.

It seems counterintuitive that noise would help anyone sleep, let alone a baby. So what's the deal with white noise? According to an article in Popular Science, white noise is simply an "equal amount [of noise] at every frequency, from low to high, that a human being can hear." When noises wake you — or your baby — it isn't really the actual noise that startles you, but the sudden change in noise consistency. White noise effectively creates a consistency in sound that can mask things like the doorbell ringing or a telephone conversation.

Mom's little helper

It seems like the white noise machine would be the best shower gift ever then, right? These handy machines have gone from being an oddity to being a baby "must-have" for this decade. Any parent who is low on sleep wouldn't think twice about using something as seemingly innocent as a white noise machine in their nursery. But researchers leading a study that looked to measure the maximum effective output levels of these machines stumbled onto an interesting side thought. Is white noise really safe for infants?

What researchers looked at

This study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, took a look at maximum effective output levels for 14 infant sleep machines that produce a range of sounds, including white noise. They tested them at maximum volume, then measured the noise level production from varying distances, such as attached to the crib, near the crib or across the room. None of the specific machine brands tested were named, only noted by researchers to be widely available.

The intention wasn't to determine if they were deemed "safe" for use with infants — and experts disagree on what guidelines manufacturers should provide to consumers. The authors of this particular study recommend that manufacturers be required to limit the maximum sound output levels of white noise machines. Researchers also want printed warnings on the packaging about potential hearing loss due to noise. Adding a timer that limits the amount of time the white noise machine runs might also lessen the potential for hearing loss.

Are they really bad?

Study authors do recommend if you use an infant sound machine that it should be placed as far away as possible from your baby, and not on the crib rail or inside the crib.

So many parents use these white noise machines, but are they destined for the dumpster? Not so fast, says the lead author of the study. "These machines are capable of delivering enough of a dose over a period of time to theoretically cause hearing loss, but that's not been tested," said researcher and senior author of the study Dr. Blake Papsin, affiliated with the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Study authors do recommend if you use an infant sound machine that it should be placed as far away as possible from your baby, and not on the crib rail or inside the crib. Keep the volume low and the amount of time used to a minimum, just to be on the safe side.

In a statement released in response to the study, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association said the following. "JPMA encourages parents to follow manufacturer guidance and instructions, and to use products as designed and intended. The safety and care of children is JPMA's highest priority."

Bottom Line^ As with any product you will use near or with your baby, err on the side of caution. If the white noise machine helps your baby — and in turn, you — sleep more soundly, then use it. Just maintain a distance between the device and your baby, and limit the volume and amount of time used.

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