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Do sleep machines put your baby at risk?

By Michael Essany     Mar 25, 2014 in Health
According to a string of new reports, electronic devices made to lull infants to sleep by producing soothing sounds can, at maximum volume, be loud enough to damage their hearing.
These machines produce what is referred to as “white noise” in order to drown out noise disturbances while a baby is sleeping, and are an extremely popular gift at baby showers. They have also been widely recommended by “parenting experts” and even some sleep experts have advised parents that they can use them all night in order to make sure that their baby gets plenty of rest.
Consequently, The New York Times reports, many parents and their children have become used to these soothing sounds and some can’t take a nap without them.
Researchers at the University of Toronto recently found that on maximum volume, some of these devices produced between 68.8 decibels and 92.9 decibels of sound at a distance of 30 cm, all of which exceed the 50 dB limit set in 1999 for hospital nurseries. Indeed, 85 dB is actually the workplace safety limit that’s been set for adults by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It’s because of these new findings that many health specialists are alarmed.
Dr. Blake Papsin, the chief otolaryngologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, says these machines “are capable of delivering noise that we think is unsafe for full-grown adult...” The inspiration for Dr. Papsin’s research resulted from a parent bringing a portable white noise machine to the hospital that was as “roaring as a carwash.”
Experts are quick to note, however, that not all high-tech solutions designed to ease babies into sleep are dangerous or ineffectual. In fact, there are some recently launched resources that have been proven as safe as they are effective.
Last year, the makers of Sleep Genius — a neuroscience-based sleep app recently integrated into Samsung’s new GEAR 2 smartwatch — released Sleep Genius Baby, an iOS application used in hospital nurseries and NICUs throughout the U.S.
As opposed to simply providing canned and potentially deafening white noise, Sleep Genius Baby, created by leading experts in neurodevelopment, child development, sound, and music therapy, say the app leverages decades of neurological research on the impact of music and sound in the development and sleep patterns of babies. Dr. David Perlmutter, author of The Better Brain Book says the app “is an essential ingredient for improving a baby’s sleep and promoting the health and development of their language, learning and music ability.”
Nonetheless, despite safe resources in this product category for parents, experts caution parents to do their homework before using a sleep machine for babies that lacks a certain scientific pedigree and safeguards for hearing damage.
Although not involved in the study, Dr. Gordon B. Hughes, the program director of clinical trials for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, says that “unless parents are adequately warned of the danger, or the design of the machines by manufacturers is changed to be safer, then the potential for harm exists, and parents need to know about it.”
Dr. Mark Weiss Lewis, author of the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and a pediatrician, said that parents could definitely still use the machines but with new precautions. “If it’s too close or it’s too loud, this might not be healthy for your baby,” he said. But “a quiet machine that’s far away may cause no harm whatsoever.”
The problem is that many models are actually designed to be attached directly to a baby’s crib, including the Sound Spa Glow Giraffe from Homedics and the Sea Dreams Soother from Baby Einstein. When asked about the report, Ashley Mowrey, a spokeswoman for Graco, was unable to specify what the loudest output for their Sleep Slumber Sound Machine actually is.
Conversely, there are some specialists who believe that the findings of the study might have been overestimated and that the reaction to it might be a bit overblown. For example, Brian J Fligor, and audiologist and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Audiology, believes that the study might be off by as much as 7 dB and is questioning whether the authors of the study used the correct procedure for differentiating between the ear canal of a newborn child and that of an adult. “I don’t see these results as a call for drastic reduction in use,” he said.
Part of the problem lies with this new study’s reference to a previous study published in 2003 in the Journal of Science. In that study it was found that continuous exposure to white noise was detrimental to the development of the brain’s hearing center in newborn rats.
Lisa L Hunter, the scientific director of research in the audiology division at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, said that even while a baby is sleeping their brain is learning to differentiate between different sounds at different pitches and levels. “If you’ve conditioned them to white noise, there’s every indication that they might not be as responsive as they otherwise should be to soft speech,” she said.
What’s interesting, and a bit concerning, about this newest study is that the parents involved were not asked exactly how or where they were using these white noise machines in their homes.
More about sleep machines, Babies, Health, hearing damage, Parents