The sounds of rushing water have been soothing Jessica Strong’s daughter, Gwenyth, to sleep since she was one month old. She would only drift off when her parents rocked her in the bathroom with the water running in the tub. Then, she moved on to a swing with a built-in “rushing river” sound effect, something that made her add the product to her newborn checklist. These days, Gwenyth, now two, falls asleep in her crib to a soundtrack of water noises playing from an iPod plugged into a speaker.
Strong, a mother of two from Windsor, Ontario, is one of the many parents who rely on white noise to help their babies sleep, or drown out any sounds that might wake a light sleeper. Noise machines disguised as cuddly stuffed animals are popular on baby shower registries, but a household fan or smartphone app can work, too—in fact, it’s a practice recommended by several popular parenting books and sleep doulas.
A recent study from researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto found that some infant sleep machines produce sounds that could increase risk of noise-induced hearing loss.
The study tested 14 infant sleep machines currently available in stores (but never released the brand names). To approximate the audio levels when the devices are placed in your baby’s crib, near the crib and across the room, they measured sound levels at about a foot away, a little more than three feet away, and six-and-a-half feet away.
Three of the machines they tested exceeded 85 decibels when on the highest volume setting, at the “in the crib” distance. That’s about as loud as a hair dryer or blender, and spending eight hours or more at 85 decibels or higher has been shown to cause hearing loss in adults. (It also exceeds occupational health guidelines for the workplace.)
Blake Papsin, paediatric otolaryngologist-in-chief at SickKids and one of the authors of the study, says that if 85 decibels is too loud for adults, then it’s probably too loud for babies. “We know 85 decibels is harmful for adults, so is white noise safe at 60 decibels? Maybe, but not if it’s on constantly, all night.”
Until researchers know more about the impact of sound machines on infant auditory development, Papsin thinks parents should err on the side of caution and follow the same guidelines in place for neonatal intensive care units, where sound is supposed to be 50 decibels.
However, 50 decibels is fairly quiet—about the equivalent of a normal conversation or office environment—and all 14 of the sound machines Papsin tested exceeded 50 decibels when placed in or near the crib. Following the 50-decibels-or-less guideline might mean cutting out the machines altogether.
After Strong read about Papsin’s study, she says she felt like a terrible parent but decided to do her own research. She downloaded a decibel-measuring app on her smartphone and checked the levels in the nursery. At her daughter’s pillow, the sound measured in the 55 to 60 decibel range. “Sixty decibels is equivalent to a conversation, so I feel comfortable with that,” she says, something the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with in most instances.
Forget the Titanic-evoking name, this affordable and brightly-hued Jack & Rose white noise machine for babies is our must-have pick. Throw it on your newborn checklist, because you'll use it as both a white noise option and nightlight as baby grows. It's portable, available in a variety of fun colors, features a clever night light and has our favorite white noise sound ever—fetal heartbeat. But yeah, it's got nature sounds, too.
This LectroFan white noise machine is really for the parents, but it's so good and effective that we're voting for it as our favorite co-sleeping white noise machine. If you share a room with baby, you'll both be lulled into a soft, sweet slumber. It features 22 unique, non-looping fan and white noise sounds.
The compact size, reasonable price and sleep timer make it a total win. You'll both be counting sheep in no time. It helps baby fall asleep anywhere you happen to go.
One of our favorite budget-friendly picks, the MyBaby sound machine offers a variety of nature-inspired soothing sounds and lullabies. It's a small, lightweight device that easily clips onto crib rails, strollers or just about anything else. It lasts for what seems like ages and neatly tucks away in carry-on luggage so you can bring it along on your next all-inclusive family vacation.
Papsin advises placing sound machines as far away from the crib as possible, on the lowest setting. Turn them down, or off, once a child has dozed off for the night. “I’m not saying you’re a bad parent if you use these machines,” says Papsin. “But they aren’t regulated at all, so just think about lowering the dose,” he explains of these popular sleep aid devices.
Strong still wouldn’t hesitate to recommend white noise for baby sleep to parents struggling with a colicky or sleep-deprived baby. Brown noise falls in a similar category. “If your child isn’t sleeping and it’s affecting your mental health, I think a bit of noise at a reasonable volume is worth the trade-off,” she says.
A version of this story appeared in the July 2014 print issue with the headline, "Sound asleep," on p. 52.
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