Like many parents, I decided to use a white noise machine to help our son get to sleep and stay asleep. It was a godsend when we used it during his 4-month sleep regression. But are there negatives to this seemingly positive device? Will white noise machines affect toddler speech if you continue to use it after infancy? My son is now 2 years old and we were planning on using this white noise machine until he went to college (I am barely kidding.) It works great for us because it drowns out our loud two cats and two dogs and our creaky old 1928 house, and we will do whatever it takes to get him to sleep through the night.
As far as research goes, there’s conflicting data, according to pediatrician Dr. Daniel Ganjian. “Some studies say it does not affect hearing and some say it does affect it. Prolonged, very loud sounds have been shown to affect hearing more than intermittent, soft sounds,” he tells Romper. “If loud or prolonged enough, it can kill the hair cells in the ear that control hearing. In adults, hair cells cannot grow back. In babies, however, since the hair cells are still developing, they might be able to recover. However, much more research is needed.”
Ganjian adds that if the white noise machine is used at “extreme amounts” that children will have to learn to have to speak loudly in order to hear themselves and be heard by others. “Besides your child's speaking volume, hearing loss can also cause language delay.”
It’s recommended to keep white noise machines at least 7 feet away from your child in their crib, according to Healthline. Additionally, the article noted, “In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) tested 14 white noise machines designed for infants. They found that all of them exceeded recommended noise limits, which is set at 50 decibels (dB). And in addition to increased hearing problems, the study found that using white noise increased the risk of problems with language and speech development.”
However, ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist Lori Caplan-Colon tells Romper, “I am not sure that much research has been conducted in this area and definitely more research is warranted to better determine the effects of white noise machines on a toddler's speech development, but I can speculate.”
As far as intermittent noise or white/background noise in general, and not necessarily while they’re sleeping, it could affect toddlers’ speech development. “I think that typically ‘noise’ is perceived as negative,” Caplan-Colon says. “Any ‘noise’ that interferes with the sounds of speech that are being offered to a toddler in a critical stage of development may impact that toddler's ability to receive, process, and later retrieve the information offered. Background noise that competes with the frequency and dB of the speech patterns offered is anticipated to mute or muffle the intended message.”
Additionally, Caplan-Colon says that the more words a child hears in the first five years of life, the better communication skills, and later, test scores, a child will have. And if the child has trouble hearing words because of the “noise,” then they “will not gain the benefits,” she says.
Instead, you can pivot your thinking and view noise not as negative, but as a steady, low background noise that might promote a great learning and interpretation ground, Caplan-Colon says. "A child may be in the ‘just right’ physiological place to receive and learn speech/language with background noise at a certain [level]." She says that because life is noisy, hearing different targeted and background noise can help children learn to distinguish the desired noise from the unwanted noise.
How can you tell if your child is already experiencing speech delays from hearing loss? Ganjian says, “Speak to your pediatrician, especially if your child is having language delay, always wants everything on the highest volume, or does not respond to your voice when you call him or her.”
As far as me continuing to use our white noise machine for my son for sleep, Ganjian says using a white noise machine with a timer can help. He adds that you can safely use a white noise machine for your toddler as long as you limit the use to only when they are crying or having tantrums. “No need for white noise when they are quietly awake or quietly sleeping. Once your child has fallen into a deep sleep, turn the machine off — either by using a remote control or putting the white noise machine on a timer."
Daniel Ganjian, M.D., pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California
Lori Caplan-Colon, owner of Montclair Speech Therapy and ASHA certified speech-language pathologist