Is Sleeping With A Noise Machine Bad For You?

There are many people throughout the country and world who use some type of noise machine to help them sleep or relax.  There are also thousands of parents who employ the use of white noise machines to help their infants get to sleep and to prevent them from crying and feeling all alone.  

These white noise machines are essentially electronic devices that repeatedly play ambient sounds, such as an ocean tide, the sounds of nature, a ticking clock or just regular patterns of non-specific noise as a way to block out unwanted noise in the environment, promote a greater feeling of relaxation, reduce the stress that comes from our inner thoughts and even provide privacy in some commercial and residential settings.  

Up until just recently, as white noise machines continued to fly off shelves, it was thought these devices were totally and completely harmless—even good for us. However, recent studies have proven that repeated and prolonged exposure to these devices and the sometimes very loud noise they create may cause certain hearing problems and other afflictions in both adults and babies (mostly in babies whose hearing is not fully developed).

Although there are many ways to use white noise machines safely and with no harmful results, improper use of the machines or overexposure to the noise can bring about some problems, some of which can be irreparable.  In this article we will concentrate primarily on the problems associated with white noise machines by identifying and explaining some of the various adverse effects that can result from improper use or overuse of the devices—problems that can occur in both adults and infants if you are not careful.

Hearing Loss

Those who use white noise machines at very high volume levels can do lots of damage to their hearing.  According to the Hearing Review, white noise machines, especially when used with personal listening devices like headphones and ear buds, can lead to significant hearing loss as the years pass by.  

Most white noise machines you purchase at the store have volume controls that prevent that noise from being too loud. The problem, says the Hearing Review, is when those white noise machines are used with personal listening devices.  People who use these personal listening devices are notorious for keeping the volume very high—sometimes without even realizing the actual decibel level. And as every hearing expert will tell you, prolonged exposure to very loud noise, regardless of the source, can have adverse effects on our hearing as time passes.

If you absolutely cannot sleep without the help of your white noise machine, experts suggest you test the noise output (you want no more than about 50 decibels) and keep the volume on the low setting.  Also, if you can help it, it is best not to use personal listening devices with your white noise machine.

Delayed Brain Development

According to the April 2003 issue of the Journal of Science, “when white noise machines are overused to help calm babies or assist them in falling asleep, the resulting noise just may be delaying the normal brain development in these children.” Written by researchers Edward F. Chang and Michael Merzenich, this article, entitled “Environmental Noise Retards Auditory Cortical Development,” goes on to say that this type of improvised environmental noise can be bad for infants and small children.  

In their study, the two researchers observed the effects of prolonged white noise on a collection of baby rats.  What they discovered is that the auditory cortex of the baby rat—the section of the brain that is responsible for hearing and language acquisition—did not begin to develop normally until the white noise was removed.

Of course, rats and children are far from being the same creatures.  Children receive plenty of non-white noise time with their parents—time in which the brain is always developing.  However, this study may be an indication that you should slightly alter your usage of a white noise machine, using it only occasionally rather than on a continuous nightly basis.

Overriding Tinnitus

Tinnitus, also referred to as “ringing in the ears,” is a bothersome condition faced by thousands of people each and every day.  Most people afflicted with tinnitus experience an internal noise in the ears, usually like a ring or a hum, which can be very distracting to say the least.  In most cases, tinnitus is the result of being exposed to loud ambient noises.

For instance, individuals exposed to loud explosions, gun shots, jet noise, or very loud construction equipment may experience brief bouts of tinnitus, and in most cases it goes away after a few days or weeks, assuming the person has removed his or herself from the loud environment.  And while most tinnitus is an “effect” of a loud noise or a very noisy environment, sometimes tinnitus can actually be a signal that something else is going on in the body—something much more serious.

According to the National Institutes of Health, tinnitus, when the symptoms are very frequent or prolonged, can reflect a larger health problem, such as high blood pressure or anemia. And while this type of tinnitus can be just as aggravating as other forms, it does send a signal that people should get checked out by their doctor to rule out any larger underlying cause.

The problem with white noise machines, according to researchers, is that they tend to mask those tinnitus symptoms.  Due to the quiet environment at night, those with tinnitus tend to see an increase in their symptoms. However, when those same individuals use a white noise machine, the resulting noise may block out those tinnitus symptoms, meaning the people who could have benefited from a doctor’s visit may never even know they have a problem.

Spatial Conflict

When most of us hear a noise, our brains tend to tell us where that noise is coming from.  And knowing the geographic location of a given noise is very important, especially when that noise is a warning of something potentially harmful happening or about to happen.  However, early and continued exposure to white noise—even at normal levels—has been known to impair the brain’s ability to perceive the direction or geographic location of a sound. 

This is according to an article in the July 2009 edition of Cerebral Cortex Magazine.  In that article, entitled “Early Continuous White Noise Exposure Alters Auditory Spatial Sensitivity,” researchers from a Shanghai (China)-based laboratory shared their results from a series of experiments with baby rats.  These rats were reared using a continuous background of white noise. What the researchers found was that the neurons in the auditory cortexes of these rats, which are responsible for spatial sensitivity—knowing where a noise came from—were severely impaired.

Last Word

If you’re now thinking about ditching the white noise machine in your baby’s room and succumbing to the notion of sleepless nights, we urge you to not be so hasty.  While it’s true that some white noise machines can put out decibel levels that may be harmful to your children’s hearing over a prolonged period of time, many pediatricians have noted that white noise machines are perfectly okay when used in moderation, as long as you keep the decibel level at or below about 55.

image: Pixels

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