Can White Noise Damage a Baby's Hearing?

April 24, 2023
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Written by
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Soundly Staff
Reviewed by
Soundly Staff

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Baby sleeping in crib

If you're a parent, you've probably heard about using white noise to help soothe your baby. Pediatricians like Harvey Karp sometimes recommend white noise to recreate sounds babies hear in the womb. However, it's important to consider any potential risks of using white noise for your baby. As an audiologist, patients often ask me about safe listening levels. Paying attention to the volume is essential, mainly when played at high levels or for extended periods, and is critical. While white noise can help to soothe your baby, it's necessary to monitor the volume level to protect the baby's hearing. In this article, I will explain everything you need to know regarding white noise machines and your baby's hearing health.

Why is white noise helpful for a baby's sleep?

White noise—in addition to other colors of noise—is known to help induce relaxation. Infants need a lot of sleep daily, with newborns requiring around 18 hours daily (yep, really!). In addition, babies in the womb are bathed in fluid and surrounded by sounds, such as the mother's heartbeat, breathing, and digestive sounds. White noise mimics the types of sounds that a neonate experiences in the womb, which can help to promote calmness and deeper rest. A study in 1990 demonstrated that 80% of infants fell asleep within five minutes of white noise exposure, while only 25% fell asleep in the control group. The study’s sample size is small (20 infants in each group), the effect of white noise appears to aid sleep for many infants. This is excellent news for parents, but are there potential drawbacks to using white noise?

Can white noise damage a baby's hearing?

White noise is created by combining different frequencies of sound, which make a sound like static or a fan. It's designed to help block out other sounds, which can help babies sleep more easily. One study examined noise levels of sleep machines and found that of 14 devices tested, 11 of them were measured within acceptable tolerances (>50 dBA), while 3 exceeded safe volume levels (>85 dBA). Another study examined six iPhone apps and eight white noise machines, finding that nine tested items exceeded 85 dBA at maximum volume. In general, it is essential to use caution when using noise with your baby because noise levels can cause damage to hearing at elevated levels or for a long duration. However, when used responsibly, white noise can be a safe method to calm and soothe your baby.

How can I safely use white noise with my infant?

The key to using white noise safely is volume. Don't set the white noise machine to maximum volume. Instead, set the volume of the white noise machine at a safe level, such as 50 to 60 decibels. Remember that if you use a baby monitor, you'll want to hear over the volume of the noise machine. The idea is to create just enough white noise to calm your baby but not enough to cover your baby's cries or other essential sounds you need to hear.

Additionally, it's important not to place the machine too close to your baby's ears. Don't place the device closer than a distance of one foot (or 30 cm). Finally, ensure you are not using white noise as a substitute for other essential needs.

Should I leave white noise on all night?

At a safe volume, leaving white noise on all night won't harm your baby's hearing. Whether you choose to leave it on all night will depend on you and your baby's preferences.

Some experts recommend that you leave it on all night as a way of helping your baby sleep more soundly. However, others argue that white noise can be overstimulating for your baby, and using it only for limited periods is better. Ultimately, every baby is different. Some babies don't like white noise, while others find it soothing. Even in the small sample size mentioned above, 20% of the infants didn't find white noise particularly soothing.

Best White Noise Machines for Babies

Look for devices with a range of sound options that are easy to use. Additionally, it's essential to choose a machine that meets all the relevant safety standards.

1. Hatch Rest Night Light and Smart Sound Machine

This white noise machine combines a night light, sound machine, and Smartphone app control into one unique device. The app allows you to set the device to your family's sleep schedule or make adjustments when you need to conveniently when using the app.

2. Cloud B Soothing Sounds Ella the Unicorn

This sound machine's adorable exterior is still perfectly audible inside the stuffed unicorn toy. Parents like the design of this white noise machine. Remember not to leave the toy in bed with your child since the sound could be too loud at close proximity. This is an excellent option for those who prefer to temporarily use white noise rather than all night. Time the white noise for 23 or 45 minutes to help soothe your baby to sleep.

3. Munchkin Sound Asleep Nursery Projector and Sound Machine with LED Nightlight

With nine different sounds, this noise machine is a great option and has some added features to help with a soothing atmospheric effect. The device can also project soothing images onto the walls, such as a rainforest, sky, or ocean. These features can be voice-activated to respond to baby's cries, and the sound timer includes 15, 30, or 60 minutes.

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Remember to keep the volume at a safe level and see how your baby responds to white noise. With these precautions in mind, white noise can be a helpful tool in helping your baby to sleep soundly through the night and get the rest that your baby needs.

–The Soundly team

Frequently asked questions

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