Is that noise machine too noisy?

I received a sound machine as a gift at my baby shower. It was the perfect gift, right? A useful item that will help every parent get what he or she really wants, SLEEP! Sleep for your baby, sleep for yourself – and that makes the whole family happier. They come in all shapes and sizes and make all kinds of different sounds.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics this month made national news raising concerns that some noise machines were, in fact, so loud they had the potential to damage an infant’s hearing. The study did not actually test babies to find out if they had hearing damage, but rather measured the sound levels made by the machines at various distances. The distances were similar to places in a nursery you might place such an object such as at the rail of the crib, on a table next to the crib, or on the other side of the room. What did the scientists learn?

1) Noise machines make too much noise when set at full volume. Some produce enough sound to damage even adult ears over time. All machines tested were louder then normal human speech and much louder then the whisper most of us would use next to a baby’s ear.

2) The closer to your baby’s head, the louder the sound and the greater the potential for damage.

3) The longer the exposure, the greater the risk.

This kind of information can get really confusing. Everyone has an opinion. What do you do if the noise machine is the sleep hero of your house? Should you take it back to the store? Here are my thoughts:

1) Your baby may not need a noise machine. Just like swaddling or a pacifier, not every baby benefits from white noise. Consider going without it.

2) Never turn the machine to full volume. Hold it next to your ear to get a more sensitive assessment of how loud it might be.

3) Keep the machine on the other side of the room to further decrease the chance of damage to little ears.

4) Use the machine for the minimum about of time. Try using it just when the older kids are up making noise or if there is a period during the day when your little one is particularly sensitive.   (If you are trying to drown out the sound of a fire truck or another screaming child, the noise from the machine is going to have to be louder than the noise you are trying to cover up. That probably isn’t what you really want. The point of the machine is to create a low volume soothing sound that replicates the environment in the womb where there is constant low pitched noise. The point isn’t to block out the rest of the world entirely. )

5) Use a sound setting that is low-pitched like true white noise, heart beat sounds, waves, etc. Avoid birds, jungles and more high-pitched options for frequent use.

6) If you have been using a noise machine, do not freak out. Follow the steps listed above. Bring it up with your pediatrician at your next visit. The risk of loud noise for little ears is real, but the overall risk for most children will be low. You and your pediatrician will be monitoring your child’s hearing and language and if there are concerns he or she will refer you for additional testing. There is not anything to do right now except turn the noise down.

Kirstin Lee, M.D. About Kirstin Lee, M.D.

Kirstin Abel Lee, M.D. is a pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and an Instructor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine. She received her undergraduate education at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and is a graduate of the Washington University School of Medicine. Kirstin completed her residency at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. She is board certified in Pediatrics and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Her interests include healthy living for children and families, emergency preparedness, and medical ethics. She is the mother of one boy age 2 years and enjoys cooking, running, and time with friends and family.

Connect with Dr. Kirstin Lee on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs and.

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