White Noise Machines and Auditory Development

Written by Super User. Posted in Blog

White Noise Machines and Auditory Development are in the News Today

Many news outlets are sharing their take on an article released today (March 3, 2014) from Pediatrics which studied the upper limits of 14 commercially available white noise machines. White noise machines are a common choice on the list of “baby gear” that new parents obtain to help their baby obtain better sleep. Based on the news stories today, we’ve had a lot of concerned parents contacting us to ask us our opinions based on our professional health care training in Occupational Therapy.


What are the news articles and the research paper really telling us?

1.We know that noise levels and certain lengths of exposure for adults can produce damage to the ear.

2.Animal studies were cited to demonstrate that completely replacing the varied natural sounds of an animal’s environment with white noise can be detrimental to their auditory pathway development and it’s postulated that this could also occur with infants affecting their development of speech and language.

3.Hospital nurseries (Neonatal Intensive Care Units – NICUs) that serve critically ill and premature infants have recommended policies to decrease ambient noise to 50 decibels to both decrease the stress of environmental stimuli for these sensitive babies, to protect their sleep by decreasing disruptive noises and to protect their sensory development (the brain of infants born at 24 weeks gestation – 4 months early – will increase in volume 4x by term).  This ambient noise is constant day and night in NICUs.

4.Many commercially available white noise machines can exceed the upper limits of noise safety for adults when turned to full volume. The loudness is amplified when the machine is closer to the baby/person.

5.Babies require many auditory inputs like singing and conversation with their caregivers to optimize their development. It is best to not use white noise all day long. 

What we know as Occupational Therapists:

1.Infants, children and adults that have sensory processing differences, particularly those that are hyper sensitive to stimuli can have difficulty filtering out extraneous noises at any time of the day, and specifically while in light sleep or REM sleep phases. An infant or child that is sensory sensitive will respond to noises more frequently and with greater intensity to their peers making sound masking more critical as when roused, they may have a difficult time re-settling.

2.White noise has a sound masking effect due to its broad range of sounds. This effect decreases the risk of unpredictable environmental sounds rousing an infant or child from sleep. 

3.Decreased overall sleep or disrupted night and day sleep can have significant implications on development and general health of infants and babies. Increasing an infant or child’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep is important to an infant and child’s overall health.

What you need to know as a parent:

1.If you have a baby that has difficulty settling to sleep and is sensitive to sounds, the noise dampening effects of white noise may assist your baby to get the sleep that he/she needs to maintain good health and promote optimal development

2.Because there are no definitive studies available at present that document long term outcomes of white noise and development in infants and children (particularly auditory), the most conservative approach that is presented in robust literature is what we can form our parenting practices around. This is the research that is being applied in the hospital NICUs to aim for a noise level no higher than 50 decibels.

3.There are decibel readers available to parents, easily accessed by downloading an app on a smart phone. This meter can be used to calibrate the level of noise. 

4.Based on the recommendations from this study, you can also place the white noise machine a minimum of 2m away from your baby and then use your meter to calibrate the noise level.

5.If you want to further decrease exposure, you can use the white noise machine in the later part of the night when your baby has a greater amount of REM sleep and is more vulnerable to environmental stimulus and to waking.

If you are interested in learning more about sensory sensitivity and your baby’s unique profile as it relates to promoting healthy sleep, our Registered Occupational Therapists can work with you to assess your child and provide a unique sleep plan which includes strategies to address sensory differences and sleep.