September 19th, 2017 | Audiologist | by Andreas Seelisch

Ask an Audiologist: Is Our White Noise App Too Loud for Our Baby?

White noise is often used as a sleep aid for children.

One concerned parent uses one and isn’t sure if her husband is turning it up too loud for their baby.

Ask an Audiologist

I’m concerned about how my husband’s use of a loud white noise app to treat our crying baby might damage her ears. My husband read a book about how to calm a crying baby. According to the writer, to calm a baby the white noise must be as loud or louder than the baby when she/he is crying. Our baby is now a month and a half years-old. She has her moments, like when she cries and screams during a diaper changing or when she has too much gas. My husband turns up the white noise application and puts it directly next to her ear. The noise is so loud, it beyond 80-85dB. My husband said he only does it temporarily until the baby stops crying. He will do it for a few minutes until the baby calms down. My question is if he’s doing this a couple of times a week, sometimes more than once a day, would this affect my baby’s hearing in the long run, even if it’s just a few minutes exposure to these loud noises? My husband keeps doing it and will not listen to me. I need professional advice to make sure this is safe for my little one. Also, we play white noise to help the baby sleep at night, but my husband turns it up quite loud (as close to 80dB). Is this a safe volume for the white noise machine every night? Thank you so much for your help.

Audiologist Response

Hi there,

Thanks for reaching out. You have a right to be concerned.

Consider noise like a dose of medication, where getting too much in terms of duration (how long your baby listens) or intensity (how loud they listen) can be harmful. If it helps, another example is sunbathing. It’s fine to go out in the sun but the more intense the exposure (unfiltered, around noon time or close to the equator) and the longer you stay in the sun all increase your risk for a burn. Whether it’s crying, music, white noise or machinery, our ears don’t really care what kind of sound it is, too much is too much. Too loud or too long still causes harm and the damage typically can’t be undone.

Using white noise to help babies sleep is quite common. White noise is a particularly good masker, meaning it covers other sounds up well. If you think of a mother shushing a baby to sleep, they are essentially creating a white noise by rushing air over their tongue and/or lips. So using white noise is itself not a problem, it’s a pretty classic strategy. It’s only an issue if it’s too loud or too long. They sell many devices for exactly this situation and so when a baby is having a hard time, mom and dad don’t have be shushing their baby for hours on end. That is fine, as long as the overall loudness and duration aren’t too long.

The question is what is too loud or too long? As a general rule, if it’s uncomfortable to listen to, then it’s probably too loud. I would recommend white noise for sleeping shouldn’t be much louder than average conversation (which is about 65dB), so you shouldn’t have to raise your voice to talk over it.  This is especially true for when your baby is asleep since in those cases the dose is very long. Minimally try to use something that has a timer. When these things are sold for babies (such as by Cloud B) or even in free downloadable apps, you can often use a timer so that it’s only on for 15 to 45 minutes at a time. This is all assuming the sound is coming from a speaker that is as close to your ear as it is to your baby’s.

Read about white noise machines and your baby

Downloadable tools are available for free on smartphones to give you a rough idea of how loud things are but decibels are complicated, as there are different scales and many factors involved. Also, remember that legal noise limits (such as 80 or 85dB) don’t mean safe, they mean safer. For example, half of the people exposed to 80dB in a factory for 8 hours a day will still likely end up with a measurable hearing loss.  With babies, we want to be far more cautious.

When being used for a shorter duration (i.e. baby is upset) it’s not as big of a concern. That said, the wording in the book was probably so that it was loud enough that baby can hear it, not so that it totally drowns out the crying altogether. While louder might be more effective, I would try bringing the level down to the lowest level. It’s still effective and you’re minimizing risk.

Putting it right next to babies’ ears in either case is probably not a great idea, as it’ll be very difficult to gauge how loud the white noise is for your baby. Sound dramatically loses energy with distance and so it might sound fine by the time it gets to your ear but right next to baby it’s too loud. Again, try putting it right next to your ear and if it seems too loud, it probably is.

I hope that helps and good luck with your infant. The early weeks are the hardest but they also go the quickest!

Andreas Seelisch is a registered Audiologist with CASLPO (College of Audiologists and Speech-Language Pathologists of Ontario). Andreas is currently working as an Audiology Manager at Hearing Solutions.

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