March 3, 2014 7:45 pm
Updated: March 3, 2014 7:46 pm

Sleep machines may be harmful to babies’ hearing, speech: study


Watch the video above: Sleep machines may be harmful to babies’ hearing, speech: study. Crystal Goomansingh reports. 

TORONTO – They may help lull your baby to sleep, but a new study is warning that sleep machines may be hurting your infant’s hearing, speech and language development.

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Canadian doctors at the Hospital for Sick Children are warning that if parents are putting these white noise machines too close to the crib, and on a loud setting, the machines could be causing more harm than good to a baby’s ears.

Some of the devices even exceed the occupational safety standards set for adults.

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“These are so popular. They’re everywhere, they’re on everybody’s what to get for the baby [list],” Dr. Blake Papsin, an otolaryngologist in chief at Sick Kids Hospital, told Global News.

Papsin said that most often, families could be watching TV, cooking, or doing laundry, and parents will play the white noise machine over this background noise to help their babies sleep.

“To have noise in the environment that disturbs your baby’s sleep, and then to put an added noise on to mask it doesn’t make much sense. You’re doubling the dose of actual energy, the sound, and that’s the part that could harm the baby,” Papsin said.

Watch: Could sleep machines be affecting you baby’s hearing? A new study looks into the issue

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He was looking after a young patient who had undergone surgery when he first thought of studying white noise machines. A sleep doula advised the baby’s parents to use a sleep noise machine – it was loud and caught Papsin by surprise.

He grabbed one of his students who used a sound pressure metre to measure the noise. It was at 85 decibels. The recommended limit? Fifty decibels.

“I told the parents it’s like a car wash in here, it’s industrial noise. We realized there is very little literature and that prompted us to look more deeply into this issue,” he said.

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In his study, Papsin tested 14 devices and at three different distances: at 30 centimetres, which would replicate the noise machine placed on a baby’s crib; at 100 cm, which would be like placing it on a nightstand beside the crib; and at 200 cm, which would be playing the machine on the other side of the room.

Under occupational health standards, 85 decibels of noise is the limit for adults. After that, hearing loss could occur. But there’s little research on sound exposure on children. Conducting a study would be difficult because scientists can’t tamper with kids’ hearing, Papsin warned.

Almost all of the devices in the study exceeded the acceptable levels of noise for neonatal nurseries. At 30 cm, some of the devices even had sounds emitting at over 85 decibels. One device even clocked in at 93 decibels.

“If we’re exceeding these levels of occupational noise for safety, then we might actually be causing some hearing loss to the infant, especially since we might be underestimating how much noise might be going on. Those are the truest risks,” Papsin said.

Papsin said he doesn’t think medical doctors are routinely using these devices or recommending them for parents.

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And parents should let their babies listen to the background noise of their family’s daily lives.

“The developing brain likes the information in the world around. It likes the dog barking and mom coming home from work. It likes the sound of people talking, it’s starting to differentiate,” Papsin said.

“It wants to learn how to live in a complex and rich environment, because as humans that’s what we crave – information.”

For now, Papsin said that parents should decrease reliance on noise machines. He recommends a shorter time frame, on the lowest volume and the farthest distance.

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He also suggests that manufacturers shouldn’t be allowed to produce devices that exceed safe levels of noise. There should be warnings on product labels about unhealthy doses of noise and its effect on hearing.

The study was published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

–          With files from the Canadian Press

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