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Many parents, including ourselves, have used white noise machines to try and create a soothing and consistent sleep environment, with little light and no noise disturbances. Moreover, white noise is also really effective at blocking external noises so it’s a handy device to have for people who may live in noisy neighbourhoods.
However, white noise machines do have to play at a certain level for it to be effective – if they can’t hear it then what’s the use? White noise sounds jarring at first; many people can be intimidated by the noise prompting the question of how loud should white noise be for a baby to not suffer hearing damage and loss.
How loud does white noise need to be to cause damage?
Trying to estimate how loud white noise should be to be both effective and not loud enough to cause damage is a tricky one – due to the way noise is measured and the tools needed to measure it. Plus, there’s the tricky part of how long the white noise will play consecutively. Hearing loss can be caused by a loud noise in a short period as well as a quieter noise but over a long period.
However, we can start by looking at how loud noises need to be in the first place to cause hearing damage.
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 track) and a washing machine.
How do I know if the white noise machine is too loud for a 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. But, 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 wiggle 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 their 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. This is one of the reasons why we advocate baby ear defenders whenever they are exposed to loud noises or to just avoid them completely.