March 3, 2014 — Parents who use infant “sleep machines” (ISMs) at maximum volume may be damaging their baby’s hearing and auditory development, according to a study published today in Pediatrics. Researchers warned, “Exposure to white noise through ISMs on a nightly basis could affect hearing, speech, and language development.”
Infant sleep machines produce between 1 and 10 noises, including white noise, nature sounds, mechanical sounds, and heartbeat. Some sleep experts recommend using the machines during naps and throughout the night for uninterrupted sleep. Over time, infants may become so accustomed to the noise that they won’t sleep without the machine.
Researchers at the University of Toronto evaluated 14 popular sleep machines at maximum volume. They took measurements at 30-cm (simulating placement inside a crib or on a rail), 100-cm (simulating placement on a nearby table), and 200-cm (simulating placement across the room). Researchers played 65 different sounds at maximum volume for 30 seconds in three trials.
Researchers found that at 100-cm, all 14 sound machines were louder than the 50-dBA limit for hospital nurseries that was established in 1999. In addition, one produced 92.9 decibels (dBA) at 30-cm, and 3 sleep machines were capable of producing noise >85 decibels dBA — exceeding the workplace safety limits for adults on an eight-hour shift for sound exposure, as determined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. If these levels were unsafe for adults in construction sites, they could be even more dangerous for an infant.
In addition, this prolonged exposure to white noise during early development could lead to altered processing of sound intensity and alterations in behavioral development. Exposing developing babies to a monotonous sound all night instead of the varying sounds of the environment (parents talking, distant noises, etc.) could affect “auditory pathways” in the brain. No one knows the long-term consequences.
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