Is white noise dangerous for our babies?
Are white noise machines safe?
White noise machines, or sound machines in the United States, are a common baby sleep device.
White noise machines produce a consistent sound that most people find relaxing, and in babies, these sounds aid in settling to sleep and staying asleep. Common white noise machines, such as the baby shusher, make a shhh shhh sound, and other more complex machines, such as the Sleepytot white noise machine, will have a variety of sounds, from waves to a crackling fire or a shush or rain sound.
Why use white noise on your baby?
Common situations that white noise can help you and your baby are.
- Blocking out toddler and older children sounds.
- Calming a crying and stressed baby.
- Helping settle your baby while you are soothing them to sleep.
- Faster settling.
- Longer naps.
- Longer deep sleep periods. (See Dr Daniel Gartenberg Sleep research HERE) https://www.ted.com/speakers/dan_gartenberg
How does white noise help newborns?
Newborns are used to the sound from inside the womb, your heartbeat, your blood rushing through your body, creating a loud whooshing sound. The silence of the external world can be too much of a change and contribute to your baby being fussy and difficult to settle.
Further to this, increasing the external stimulation your newborn is receiving can be calming, this is why pressure (from a swaddle or cuddle), sucking from feeding or a dummy, movement from rocking or patting and white noise can all combine to help a stressed, tired, crying, not sleeping newborn calm down enough to be able to be settled to sleep.
White noise machines can make your life easier, but you can always physically create a shhh shhh sound yourself if you are more comfortable doing this with your newborn.
What about white noise for older babies?
White noise can be very effective at blocking out environmental noises of everyday life, loud siblings, sudden dropping of cooking equipment, and loud trucks driving past mid-nap. All of these environmental sounds can contribute to becoming a major disruptor of sleep for your child. AAP statements point to environmental sounds as a big contributor of disrupted sleep, and this broken sleep is having negative effects on daytime alertness, performance, and quality of life and health.
White noise machines can block out these noises and help your older baby or toddler take an uninterrupted nap.
They can even help us mums take a nap and not hear our older children when they’re being cared for by a partner.
What are the safe guidelines on white noise machines from the AAP?
In 2023, the AAP revised their guidelines on hearing loss, auditory processing issues and more when it comes to our babies and children.
White noise machines were looked at, and some do produce a sound which when put to close to a baby for too long could be too loud and potentially damaging. The following guidelines have been created to help parents use white noise effectively and safely.
Firstly the AAP acknowledges that white noise machine research shows the potential benefits of white noise, the ease of falling asleep and the noted decrease in crying. However, their study into 14 white noise machines found 3 that could exceed safety limits if played continuously for more than 8 hours.
The AAP recommends.
- Locate the white noise machine further away from the cot (2 metres).
- Set the volume lower.
- Limit duration to less than 8 hours at full volume.
- Turn it off during awake times.
How does this impact what we recommend at Baby Sleep Consultant?
It doesn’t. I’ve always suggested parents place white noise machines on nursery furniture away from the cot, or by the door, some older children we place it outside the door so they can’t play with it, and its blocking the family noise.
Volume: I always tell clients you only need the full volume white baby is screaming and crying, so they can hear it over their own noise! Once they stop crying loudly, we can turn it down to a more background level and leave it on for a nap.
If using white noise at night, you only need it on a quiet background level once the baby is asleep. I often only recommend night white noise while actively sleep training. Once the baby has learnt to successfully self-settle, or you have solved your sleep challenge, it is often not needed continuously at night.
We would always recommend the white noise is off after naps so that you can communicate and enjoy your baby.
Is white noise bad for development?
You might have encountered social media posts declaring white noise damages hearing and limits development in babies. The research and policy statements simply don’t support this. This narrative is similar to the sleep training causes brain damage conclusion…
Here’s how these people come up with their conclusions.
Prolonged physical or mental child abuse is classified as toxic stress and causes changes in brain development (negatively). My opinion is that sleep training is mean, and I call that child abuse. Therefore, sleep training causes brain damage… do you see the problem there?
Then we get into white noise…
Research into hearing loss associated with personal listening devices (ear pods, head phones) at dangerous levels shows that prolonged exposure is causing speech and language issues… I think this is the same as white noise. Therefore despite the guidelines from the AAP saying otherwise, all white noise causes speech and language problems.
Same problem as above. There is no evidence to support the opinion leap the person has made from one piece of research to their opinion.
The actual research shows that when a child is exposed to TV and loud environmental noises in their awake times, they can’t hear their parents or caregivers correctly, and this leads to speech and language issues.
The real message is during your child's awake time, be sure to limit background noise like the TV or other loud children and toys. Let your baby/toddler listen clearly to you, talk to them lots, this is what builds those communication skills.
The final kicker people will throw at you on social media is that white noise has been shown to cause auditory processing issues and this has been proven in a study. Yes, this is concerning if you are a rat and you are exposed to loud white noise for 24 hours a day. This is what the study looked at. Our babies are not rats, and they do not listen to dangerously loud white noise 24 hours a day.
Follow the AAP guidelines for white noise above and rest easy.
Ready to wean your white noise machine?
I find in terms of settling, the most effective age for white noise is under 12 months. After this age I am only recommending white noise if you are trying to create a sound barrier to environmental noises such as a one off dinner party, a camping trip, or loud siblings home in the holidays.
Once you read this, you might be thinking, “Oh I can wean my white noise! But how?”
You can simply turn it down over a couple of nights. I find 3-7 days of progressively making it quieter and quieter and your baby will easily be weaned off the white noise machine.
Should I use a decibel reader?
You can get many decibel reading apps on smart phones these days, and these can be great for testing white noise levels.
If using one of these, the AAP recommends 50 decibels, and the CDC recommends 60 decibels or lower. Those are your 2 guides.
If trying to figure it out on your own, stand where your baby sleeps and place the white noise machine 2 metres away for more. Is the sound more or less what you hear when you wash your hair in the shower?
Turn it down.
Less or the same? It’s good!
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education. Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.