What’s all the (white) noise about anyway?

My Dad’s been staying with me recently, and he’s frequently commented on how different things are with kids these days to when he and my Mum were bringing up me and my siblings.  Most of it’s pretty small stuff, really, but one thing he’s often marvelled at is how my husband and I use technology as part of our parenting. Whether that’s asking ‘Alexa’ to set a timer so the girls know how long they have before we leave for school or asking her the answer to the tricky question my eldest has asked (o yeah, that happens far more than I’d like to admit!). Or, something fairly simple and mundane like using white noise machines in our girl’s bedrooms to disguise some of the noises from outside in the mornings, helping them stay asleep longer (we do live in London after all).

Having a little too much time on his hands while he was here, he then decided to look into white noise (as it wasn’t a ‘thing’ when we were kids and he was curious about it).  After half an hour or so of research he told me, in a panicked tone, to stop using it immediately as it was likely to be harmful to his darling granddaughter! O my! THAT was a serious case of ‘Mum Guilt’!  How could I not have been aware of this! What had I been doing for all these months?! Obviously, I asked him to send me the links for where he’d got this information from.

Otolaryngologist examining a kid ear with otoscope

When I first looked, they all seemed to be reputable news sources making these claims. However, as is all too often the case, the headlines were inflammatory and misleading and obviously meant to scare parents into clicking on the headline. At least that was the feeling I got after reading more on the study the news articles were based on. 

Now, I don’t have a degree in audiology, so I can’t claim to speak from a position of authority here, but I do know how to find the truths in a news story.  And to me, this seems like more parental fear-stoking from the media who want to sensationalise things and get people to click through to their website rather than offer a thorough well rounded view of the actual study they’re supposedly talking about.  Rather than giving an objective report of the research, they dive into all of the potential harm that something could be doing to your child, then throw a quiet one-liner into the last paragraph along the lines of, “Most experts agree that, if you employ the slightest modicum of common sense, this isn’t something you need to worry about,” and that certainly seems to be the case here. 

The media is always right, aren’t they?

So what makes me so sure that this is sensationalised and not something we should genuinely be too concerned about? Let’s pick through this story together so you can see my workings out, shall we? The article in USA Today starts off with the headline “Caution Urged for Infant Sleep Machines!” (note, it’s from 2014) and by the second sentence, claims that a new study shows white noise machines, “could place infants at risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss.” 

The study they’re referring to tested 14 different machines and tested the volume of the noise they put out at different distances from the sound meter, mimicking the various locations in baby’s room that the machine might be located. The results? All 14 machines exceeded 50 decibels at 100 centimeters from the sensor; 50 decibels being the recommended noise limit for hospital nurseries in the USA. Golly Gosh!! All of them? So there’s not a machine on the market that won’t damage my little darling’s hearing? Well, that’s certainly the impression you might get from reading the article.

But wait.

How loud is 50 decibels? Luckily, I had an understanding of how decibels work thanks to a music technology course I took many years ago, and also thanks to my research for my Dissertation for my psychology degree last year, but it’s not quite as obvious as it seems.  It’s easy to assume that a decibel was like any other kind of measurement. By that, I mean that 2 is twice as much as 1, and that ten was half as much as twenty, etc etc. So working on the knowledge that a vacuum cleaner runs at about 70 decibels, you might assume that 50 would be, you know, about two thirds as loud as that. Wrong. 50 decibels is actually one quarter as loud as 70. It’s about the same volume as a quiet conversation at home or a quiet suburb, according to Purdue University’s handy little cheat sheet

So it would seem that the reason pediatric nurseries are suggested to keep the noise down below 50 dB is more to do with creating a sleep-friendly environment than preventing hearing loss. A-HA! So, it’s definitely not loud enough to do any kind of damage. But wait! 3 of these machines, it turns out, were capable of kicking out more than 85 dB of white noise which is the point at which workers legally have to wear ear defenders at work both here in the UK and in the USA (it’s about as loud as a blender, to put it into perspective).  So I’ll admit, there’s potential for some hearing damage if you were to put one of those three machines on full blast near your baby’s cot or in their buggy or pram, which as parents, we probably need to know.  

Taking this all into consideration, I have three things you might want to think about about:

1. If you turn on a machine on maximum volume in your baby’s room at a volume similar to that of a busy restaurant and expect it to help them sleep, I think you need to try it on yourself first. Crank it up and see how quickly you drop off to sleep… 

2. Parents are prone to ‘parent guilt’ about so much, surely the media can relay information like this in a responsible, non-panic-inducing manner? I know I shouldn’t take it personally, but it drives me crazy when the media takes a rational and informative study, like this one, whose only conclusion is to suggest that the machines should ship with some kind of instructions about how to use them safely, and try to cause a panic just to increase visits to their websites. 

3. I can’t help but think of it like a car.  Just because my car ‘can’ go over 100mph, doesn’t mean I’m going to drive it that fast (well, not these days anyway), because common sense tells me that’s not a great idea, and not terribly safe for my kids.  Surely, white noise machines are the same, aren’t they? Just because you can crank it up pretty loud, doesn’t mean you have to, does it?

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that this has caused at least a few parents, who are naturally extremely concerned about protecting their babies, to throw away a great product that helps their little ones get the sleep they need just because they saw an inflammatory headline and didn’t have the time to read the whole article or research.

One thing that every parent, doctor, scientist and academics can all agree on, is that we all need sleep. It’s undisputed. We suffer without it and we thrive when we get the rest we need. So if your little one sleeps better when you have a white noise machine in their room, don’t panic!  If you’re not comfortable just using plain old common sense to work out if it’s too loud or not, you could always download one of the many apps available for your phone to see just how loud it is if you are worried! (Just remember to set it to dBA, as that’s the frequency we’re talking about).

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