Pediatrics Study on White Noise: Sounding Off on Sound Machines

is white noise too loud

I make no secret of the fact that I love white noise because it’s immensely helpful in helping your children cry less and sleep better. It’s pretty much the only “no fail” baby sleep tool at your disposal. Seems simple enough: buy one of the many commercial baby white nose machines and turn it on. No brainer, right? Well today Pediatrics published study on white noise saying that the cute little baby white noise machine you got at your baby shower is too loud.

The study took 14 infant sound machines (those marketed specifically for use with babies), turned the volume up to the loudest level, and measured the sound levels at three distances designed to approximate being hung directly on the crib rail, table-side next to the crib, or across the room from the crib. According to these measures, all sound machines were above the recommended volume of 50 dB when measured from crib or table-side distance, and some were even reaching levels of 85+ dB.

Is this too loud?

Yes. This is too loud.

The study does a great job of highlighting the fact that some devices marketed for use with infants are producing noise that is too loud. Sadly they don’t specify which devices they tested so if you’re wondering if one of these problematic devices is the exact one you’re using right now the answer is, “Who knows.”

The New York Times has a great writeup on this. The author asked some of the leading manufacturers of baby white noise machines if they could specify the volume output of their devices. Graco declined to answer (bad move Graco, it makes you look like you have something to hide n’est-ce pas?).

Marpac (device manufacturer) did respond to the NYT reporter saying this:
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Michelle Landesman, the customer care director at Marpac, said that the company’s Dohmie sound conditioner for babies has a decibel range of 50 to 75. “Our measurements are only taken six inches away from the machine, and that’s obviously much closer than we’d recommend,” she said.
[/pullquote]Probably by this point you’re probably feeling like this whole white noise thing is a mess and better to stop using it entirely because…why risk it? I hear you. Sometimes science is scary. But before I start making staid references to babies and bathwater let’s take a look at what we know….
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  • The study does not say that white noise is bad, it said that many baby white noise machines are too loud and that is bad.
  • White noise devices marketed for use with babies are, if set to the loudest volume, likely surpassing the 50 dB guideline.
  • Using white noise of appropriate volume has many scientifically documented benefits to your child.
  • Dr. Karp maintains that the use of white noise, used appropriately, is just fine. In the NYT article, Weissbluth backs it up too.

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The issue isn’t that white noise is harmful, the issue is that some of the gadgets we’re using are probably too loud. They might be OK if you turn down the volume or place them more than 200 cm away from the crib.

You want 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. Also, 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 db) so 50 dB is a very conservative volume and sounds far more quiet to your child than it does to you.

But even so, how can we make sure we’re not overdoing it?

Use White Noise Safely

[list type=”checklist”]

  • Never put a white noise machine in or immediately next the crib.
  • If you’re using a baby white noise device you should probably assume that it’s too loud if set to the highest volume. (Would be super helpful if they simply listed the products tested no?)
  • Check the ambient noise of white noise in your child’s room with a decibel meter app.*
  • “Reality check” the volume where your child sleeps: does it sound like the volume of somebody taking a shower to you?
  • Talk to your pediatrician about it.

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*Testing Decibels

There are a variety of apps to test the volume of sound. I can’t make any claims to their accuracy. The SPLnFFT ($3.99) and SoundMeter+ ($1.99) apps both got excellent reviews here. Unless you have a high-quality Level 2 Sound Meter handy this is probably the best you can do. (You all know I’m not a sound engineer right?)

On A Personal Note

You probably don’t know (or don’t care) but I’m actually a reference in this peer-reviewed scientific study published by Pediatrics. No I’m not making that up – this study on white noise uses ME as a reference. Holy crap that’s bananapants right?
reference2

The downside about this reference is that it’s not entirely flattering. It suggests that I advocate the use of infant white noise machines (I don’t) and lumps me in with another blogger who advocates the use of white noise as loud as 85 dB (which is far louder than the 50 dB that I, and frankly modern science, suggests). Thus there is definitely a not so slight whiff of “crazy internet bloggers give bad advice” about it. Science News also links to me with the quote, ” And don’t be shy: The noise should be louder than you think.”

The suggestion is that I’ve been telling parents to blast their children with white noise. And sadly this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

There are many reasons I post infrequently (2 kids, life, I’m lazy) but one of the biggies is that I put a lot of time and research into my blog. If I’m giving advice I do everything possible to ensure that it’s backed up by credible science wherever possible and if there is ever a safety issue where there is no credible science to be found (baby swings anyone?) I’m always clear that it’s something you should discuss with your pediatrician.

And there’s a reason for this.

There is nothing more important than the safety of your child. Absolutely nothing. I get it. You get it. And never, at any moment, do I forget that fact.

My post on white noise (published April 2011 and unedited since that time) doesn’t recommend the use of baby white noise machines and is clear that the volume shouldn’t exceed 50 dB. That’s what I said 3 years ago and that’s what I say today. Everything I’ve written is in 100% accord with the white noise study. So I’m going to ignore the implied critique and focus on the upside – The American Academy of Pediatrics is writing about ME for a change. Yay?

But enough about me. Is anybody else freaked out about this? And if so, did I help or just make it worse?