Nearly every family I help with their baby’s sleep has some version of white noise being used to help their baby sleep. It is a truly modern parenting phenomenon and something that I never came across being used 10 years ago and very rarely 5 years ago. Nowadays they are in nearly every nursery and baby sleep space. So why did we start using it to get our babies to sleep?
What is white noise used for?
Newborns struggle with sleep full-stop. They can wake at the drop of a pin. They have high arousal states as a survival mechanism. At 3 months the ability to go into deeper sleep and join sleep cycles becomes more likely as your baby matures. Think how noisy hospitals and special care nurseries are, and yet these babies sleep soundly. Having background noise is helpful and healthy for a young baby. If your house is too quiet and they hear a sudden loud noise such as DIY/house renovation noises that is more likely to startle more than the usual noise of family life. Also good settling habits encourage deeper sleep so noise has less of an impact on baby. So put that radio on low and talk normally.
When is it useful?
The first 3 months or as it is commonly known, the 4th trimester. I remember when my sister had her first baby and I stayed with her for a week. By day 6 I’d had enough of the, ‘Sssshhhhh, Freya’s sleeping’, so the radio went on (not quiet but not loud) and we all were much happier! And yes Freya slept. If you live near a busy road, over a flight path or have neighbours doing DIY then having background noise or white noise can be very helpful.
What the experts are saying
Paediatric ear surgeon Blake Papsin at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto got interested in these white noise machines when he went into a patient’s room and was blasted with white noise. “The parents said, ‘Oh, the sleep doula tells us this is good for sleeping,’” Papsin recalls. The next time he went into the room, he brought a sound pressure meter. “Eighty-five decibels is what this thing was pumping out,” he says. That’s a level that can be reached by a loud hair dryer [Science News, 2014]. Pepsin and his colleagues did further research on 14 commercially available baby white noise machines and they were horrified by the results.
All the machines were capable of reaching 50db the level considered to be safe in newborn nurseries. However some pumped out levels of 85db, the level of a loud hairdryer. However he failed to say which of the white noise machines he had tested. That would have been helpful!
Papsin would like to see the noise reduced once baby is off to sleep. Harvey Karp, author of ‘The Happiest Baby on The Block’, disputes these findings and recommendations. Karp says, ‘there’s absolutely no evidence that more moderate sounds, around 65 to 70 decibels or the sound of a soft shower, are harmful’. So what is a sleep deprived parent to do? What a quandary when doctors are in dispute. Who is right? No wonder parents are confused nowadays. There are so many opinions on parenting out there.
Papsin advises placing sound machines as far away from the crib as possible, on the lowest setting. Turn them down, or off, once a child has dozed off for the night. “I’m not saying you’re a bad parent if you use these machines,” says Papsin. “But they aren’t regulated at all, so just think about lowering the dose,” he explains.
A parents perspective
Strong, a mother from Ontario, Canada read about Papsin’s study, she says she felt like a terrible parent but decided to do her own research. She downloaded a decibel-measuring app on her smartphone and checked the levels in the nursery. At her daughter’s pillow, the sound measured in the 55 to the 60-decibel range. “Sixty decibels is equivalent to a conversation, so I feel comfortable with that,” she says. They still use the iPod nightly, but Strong turns the volume down after her daughter falls asleep.
What type of white noise is the best?
Use an App on your smartphone or a white noise machine but without a light show. Newborns absorb stimuli and the last thing you want is a highly aroused baby in the middle of the night. You’re trying to get them to sleep at night, not have a party in their crib! The sounds most parents find effective are: the hairdryer, vacuum cleaner and the clothes tumble drier.
When should you stop it?
At 3-12 months. The jury is out on this at the moment. Certainly, after 6 months most babies cope very well without it. Using it after 4 months can create a sleep association. This is something I’m delving into in my soon to be released baby sleep book.
What are the dangers with white noise?
Just be aware that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends white noise should be no louder than 50 db to protect those delicate little ears [Hugh et al, 2014]. Levels of 85db or over are damaging to baby’s hearing and will probably cause permanent hearing damage if they are used for long periods of time. They also risk affecting infant speech as the white noise has an ability to mask hearing of speech sounds. Hearing of speech is necessary for the infant to produce his own speech sounds. The recommendations are to use for short periods of time at low levels.
It’s important to note that babies don’t hear like you do. Your baby as an auditory threshold of at least 25-35 db until their first birthday (adults have an auditory threshold of 0-180 db) so 50 dB is a very conservative volume and sounds far more quiet to your child than it does to you.
The take away from all of this
The issue isn’t that white noise is harmful, the issue is that some of the devices we’re using are probably too loud. They might be safer if you turn down the volume or place them more than 200 cm away from your baby’s bassinet. It’s important to NEVER put a white noise machine in your baby’s cot or bassinet. And I’d recommend checking the level of the white noise with a decibel app on your smartphone. It’s important to know what level of white noise your baby is being exposed to. Use white noise that is no louder than 50 dB, approximately the volume of somebody taking a shower. As a comparison, normal human conversation is 60 db, so 50 dB is quieter than just about everything that you and your baby do during the day.