White noise machines can create a soothing and consistent sleep environment. It can also be extremely effective at blocking out external noises such as building work or traffic noise, so it’s a handy device for people who live in a busy neighbourhood.
However in order to be effective, they have to be played at a certain volume – after all, if your baby can’t hear it then what’s the use?
The machines come in all shapes and sizes – they can be standalone units, many modern baby monitors have a built-in white noise function. There are also white noise apps for your phone which allow for accurate volume control, and then there are more traditional white noise sources such as fans and air conditioning units.
White noise machines in particular can sound disconcerting at first, and many people can be intimidated at the prospect of leaving their little cherub alone with a toneless background sound. How loud should white noise be for a baby not to suffer hearing damage and loss?
How Loud does White Noise Need to be to Cause Damage?
This is a challenging question to answer. Most parents aren’t equipped with the tools needed to accurately measure the volume of a sound (measured in decibels) and so they’re left to do it ‘by ear’ – something which can pose risks in itself because an older person has less sensitive hearing than a newborn. As well as the volume of the noise, you also need to consider the length of time over which the noise will be played, as this can play a small part in hearing loss.
Firstly we’ll look at how loud a sound needs to be in order to cause damage in the first place.
According to the CDC, when noises reach 70db they are classed as ‘annoying’ – these kinds of noises come from being up close to washing machines, dishwashers and city traffic. When they reach 80db they can cause damage when exposed for 2 hours straight. Moving up to 95db, damage can occur within 50 minutes of non stop noise from things such as car engines, motorcycles and some building site machinery.
So, now we have a relatively straight answer for how loud a white noise machine should be with a baby and that’s no more than 60-70db when listening to it over a significant period of time. 60-70 is about the level of noise of an up close conversation, a shower, air conditioning (a common white noise soundtrack) and a washing machine.
Is It Too Loud For My Baby?
It’s difficult to know if it’s too loud because humans can’t exactly figure out how loud a noise is on their own. As a general rule – if you can just about hear yourself talk over the white noise then it’s fine but if the white noise drowns out conversational level voices, a washing machine or a hair dryer then it is too loud.
A much simpler way to find out if your white noise machine is too loud is by using a sound level meter (SLM) which can be purchased as a stand alone device or as an often-free app for your smartphone which uses the microphone to tell you what level the noise is.
Place the SLM right next to where the baby is going to be lying and then adjust the volume of the white noise machine so that it reaches a safe level. We recommend no more than 60dB so that you have some room in the event they roll over and get close to the noise as they sleep.
White Noise Can Damage Hearing
Despite how effective a white noise machine is it can cause hearing damage if the dB the source produces is too high and if your baby is exposed to it for a long enough period of time. A loud noise for a short period can be just as damaging as a much quieter noise for long periods so responsible use is urged.
With white noise usually being played for hours at a time the risk of hearing loss is quite high if proper precautions aren’t taken. Noise induced hearing loss can lead to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, upset stomach, sleeping problems, tiredness and a constant ringing in the ear which will make them very temperamental.
Hearing damage can be a very slow process and when it comes to babies they won’t be able to tell you about their issues unless the noise is so loud it hurts.
Consider substituting the white noise machine for a quiet fan, or ensure that you start with your white noise machine set to a very low volume to begin with, so your baby doesn’t get too comfortable sleeping only with loud background noise.