Do I need to worry about using a white noise machine to help my kid sleep? What to know about noise hazards

A baby is sleeping on a bed next to a white noise machine.
Getty Images

Parents have used white noise machines to help their children sleep soundly for decades. But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) just issued a policy statement warning that these tools and other loud noises can lead to hearing issues in kids when they're not used correctly.

In the statement, the AAP notes that children and teens have "unique vulnerabilities," and that they often don't recognize hazardous noise exposures. "Noise exposure is under-recognized as a serious public health issue in the United States," the statement reads. "Greater awareness of noise hazards is needed at a societal level."

But white noise machines are extremely common. A survey conducted by Sleep Doctor earlier this year found that 37.2% of parents say their kids need some sort of background noise to sleep, and 38.1% who use noise to sleep prefer white noise from an app or machine. A Bloomberg report published in August noted that white noise podcasts make up 3 million daily consumption hours on Spotify.

How concerned should you be about using a white noise machine with your child, and is it safe to keep doing so? Doctors break it down.

What is white noise?

You're likely familiar with white noise on some level, but you may be fuzzy on the details. "Sound, much like light, has a spectrum of wavelengths that are categorized by color," Dr. Wanda Abreu, medical director of the Well Baby Nursery at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "When you combine all of the color wavelengths, they appear white to the eye. White noise is the combination of all the colors in the acoustic spectrum."

White noise makes a "steady, static-like background that some people — and some infants — find soothing, restful and sleep-promoting," clinical psychologist Lynelle Schneeberg, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Connecticut Children's Sleep Center, explains. White noise can also block out ambient sounds like people in the household, TV, traffic noise and more, Schneeberg says.

Sound machines work to combine these different wavelengths of sound, Abreu says. "This 'blurs' out other sounds, so to speak, so that the brain does not focus on it," she says.

How worried should parents be about the AAP statement?

The AAP addresses all loud noises in its statement — not just white noise machines. "Excessive or prolonged exposure to high volumes can result in hearing loss, tinnitus or hyperacusis, a condition in which everyday sounds may seem unbearably loud and painful," the AAP says. "Sensorineural hearing loss results from damage to the inner ear and is usually irreversible. Listening to loud music, whether by personal listening devices or at a concert, can cause sensorineural hearing loss, even in children and teens."

This can also lead to hearing loss in adulthood, the AAP says. But while the organization addresses loud white noise machines, it doesn't say parents should stop using them. Instead, the AAP cites one study of 14 infant sound machines that found that three of those devices exceeded recommended occupational limits, and that hearing damage could happen if the machines were played for more than eight hours.

However, the organization also says several studies show that white noise machines can help children fall asleep, decrease crying and increase their pain threshold. So ... what are parents supposed to think?

"Parents should be very concerned," Abreu says. "While the use of sound machines may be an aid to sleep, we also know that it can be detrimental. Infants' ear canals are smaller than adults, and this makes the sounds more intense for them and makes them more vulnerable to have hearing damage."

But the concern is more about how loud these machines are, versus using them as a whole, Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. If they're used at lower levels, they're safe for children, he says.

Dr. Cher Zhao, a pediatric ear, nose and throat expert at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, agrees. "Parents should be cautious regarding the volume and duration of exposure," she says.

"Sound machines have consistently demonstrated their effectiveness in improving infant mood and sleep, making them a recommended choice for parents," Ganjian says. He adds that parents can "confidently" continue to use white noise machines to help their baby sleep — provided they're not too loud.

How to use white noise machines safely

The AAP offered some guidance in its report on using white noise machines safely. Those tips include:

  • Place the machine as far away as possible in the room from where your baby is sleeping, or at least 7 feet away.

  • Set the volume as low as possible.

  • Limit how long you use white noise machines.

The AAP recommends setting the volume no higher than 50 decibels, equivalent to the sound of a quiet office (there are apps that can help you determine this, per Schneeberg).

Overall, Abreu says you're fine to use a white noise machine for your child: Just be aware of volume and how you use it. "Turn them off when baby is asleep, and try to develop other bedtime routines as your infant grows," she says.