Does white noise for babies have consequences?

A grandfather was peering through the window of the newborn nursery at the hospital. His daughter had given birth the day before. Looking at little Ian, the grandfather saw his own round nose. There was no mistaking that this child was family.

Sleeping Baby

The maternity ward was too warm for his liking. He would keep his visit short and get some fresh air. He noticed a rhythmic clicking noise. Where was it coming from? Ah-ha! There was a fan running in the newborn nursery. It was making a click on every rotation.

The grandfather would not stand for this. He knocked on the window to the nursery. One busy nurse frowned at him. He persisted and she came out to scold him.

Nurse​: Stop knocking. We have babies who are sleeping!

Grandfather: Your wretched fan is harming their brains. Turn it off immediately!

That approach didn’t work. The nurse gave him a chair and some apple juice and went back to her work, leaving the fan on.

The grandfather was a neuroscientist who had done extensive research on auditory processing. He waited until he was outside and then turned on his mobile to call his lawyer. The next day he was back with a letter demanding that the hospital remove the fan from the newborn nursery.

Why was this neuroscientist so sure that white noise would damage the babies’ brains? What did this expert in auditory processing know?

What is auditory processing?

Auditory processing is what you do when you are listening and figuring out the meaning of the sound.

For example, if you were crossing the street and heard squealing brakes, your brain would immediately alert you to danger. If you were scanning the radio for a good station, you would be able to tell the difference between country music and classical music in less than two seconds.

  • Auditory processing must be rapid. Your brain has to be able to analyze the sounds and attach meaning to the sounds at incredible speed.

Can babies be born with auditory processing difficulties?

No, babies are not born with auditory processing difficulties. Newborns have brains that are waiting for sensory input. Neuroscience research has shown that processing abilities develop after birth as neurons link up to create pathways in the brain.

Crucial Brain Organization during Infancy

Each incoming signal is important to a newborn’s brain. During the first year of life, the brain is very busy getting organized. The baby must analyze the sensory input and create a category for it. This crucial brain development prepares the baby for life.

Baby Brain Map
  • Similar input is put into the same category. New input goes into a new category.

The newborn babies in the nursery were processing the whoosh and click of the fan and trying to attach meaning to it.

An Organized Brain is Efficient

Have you ever entered a room and smelled potpourri or bleach? Your brain notices the smell, analyzes it and then quickly stops paying attention to it. Your brain already has categories for potpourri and bleach. As soon as your brain has put the aroma into a category, you can shift your attention to something else. An organized brain deals with incoming sensory information as efficiently as possible. Even though the sensory information keeps coming at you, your brain can decide to turn off the processing. In essence, your brain stops thinking about the input. Your brain is highly tuned in to new sensory input and wonderfully capable of ignoring old sensory input.

  • If your brain were not able to do this, you would constantly be bombarded by overwhelming sensory input. You would not be able to cope.

What is White Noise?

White noise is sound that covers a wide frequency range. It has a fuzzy quality with no specific pitch.

Some examples of white noise are:

White Noise For Babies Fan
  • The sound of a fan
  • The sound of rushing water
  • A radio station that is just static
  • The chatter of lots of voices at the same time
  • The noise of a busy street

Adults notice white noise when they enter a new environment. Very quickly, the brain decides not to analyze the incoming noise. The brain decides to stop paying attention to the noise.

  • Having trouble paying attention in noisy environments is the defining characteristic of auditory processing difficulties. 

Let’s get back to the grandfather who brought a letter from his lawyer to the hospital. He wanted the hospital to remove the fan from the newborn nursery because he knew that white noise could teach those little brains to stop paying attention in noisy situations. He was aware of the impact of auditory processing difficulties on speech, language and learning. His expertise compelled him to protect the babies in the nursery from the consequences of being exposed to white noise so early in their development.

What is it like to have auditory processing difficulties?

Preschoolers

Preschoolers with auditory processing difficulties usually have delayed language and poor speech. It can be hard for them to hear the difference between speech sounds, resulting in speech problems. Comprehension can be affected, because the person is doing a lot of guessing. Words like Sue, shoe, zoo, and chew might all sound the same to the child.

Preschoolers
  • Preschoolers with auditory processing problems tend to be highly visual learners with some clear signs of good intelligence. It is common for them to be prone to temper tantrums because of the amount of frustration they are dealing with.

Primary Students

Primary students with auditory processing difficulties often lag behind their peers in reading acquisition and spelling. They are bright, with good visual reasoning and problem solving. This type of child tends to excel at visual activities, such as puzzles, lego and Mindcraft.

It is common for a concerned teacher to notice the poor listening skills and refer the child for a hearing test. Children with auditory processing difficulties can appear non-compliant because they don’t follow verbal instructions well. They might have memory problems because they are doing so much guessing. They might have expressive language problems.

  • It can be impossible children with auditory processing problems to explain themselves, especially when they have failed to follow instructions.
Intermediate Students

Adult: I told you not to take that outside. Why is it all wet?

Child: Um. I don’t know.

Intermediate Students

Auditory processing difficulties make it difficult to pay attention in noisy situations, like a classroom or gym. In addition, processing of speech tends to be slower than normal. Children who can’t keep up might tune out when someone is talking. The child might not hear all the sounds in a word, so sore and store might sound the same. It can be impossible to understand people with foreign accents. Children with auditory processing difficulties often ask for repetition. 

Adult: We will stop at the store to get some cream for your sore.

Child: Huh? What did you say?

Mom Driving
  • During the intermediate grades, students with auditory processing problems are usually diagnosed as having a learning disability (LD), dyslexia, or attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD). The gap between their intelligence and their academic abilities is frustrating.

Auditory Processing Difficulties in Autism

Parents of children with auditory processing difficulties often wonder if their child has autism. It is true that auditory processing difficulties are very common in autism. The key to a differential diagnosis is that autism usually involves lots of sensory processing issues, not just auditory processing problems.

Auditory Processing Disorder

In most cases, the student’s hearing has been tested several times and the results show that hearing acuity is normal. A hearing acuity test is measuring a very basic brain function. It tells you that the sensory system is detecting auditory input. It does not tell you if the brain can process that auditory input quickly and attach meaning to it.

While it is common to get a diagnosis of LD, dyslexia, autism or ADD/ADHD, it is rare to get a diagnosis of an auditory processing disorder (APD) for a child. There are several reasons that APD is an elusive diagnosis:

  • This diagnosis requires a complex audiological assessment in a soundproof booth. Rather than just assessing hearing acuity, the audiologist evaluates speech perception under noisy conditions and compares this to age expectations. Special test materials are needed. The assessment can't be done on young children. The norms are for older children and adults.
  • Audiologists are not available in the school system.
  • Most public audiology clinics don't offer this time consuming assessment. They are focused on assessments for hearing loss.
  • When private audiology clinics offer APD assessments for children, they charge a lot of money.
  • The recommendations that audiologists provide after an APD diagnosis tend to be too difficult or too expensive for schools to implement. For example, a common recommendation is to install a loudspeaker system in each class that the student will be attending. Schools don't like to get reports that make it look like they are not responding to the child's educational needs.Thus, private clinics rarely have a good referral relationship with local schools.
  • Teachers, doctors and others who know the child's history and learning profile tend to view an APD diagnosis with skepticism because it is such a narrow view of the child's problems.
  • Professional organizations, such as the American Speech and Hearing Association, have questioned whether APD is a legitimate clinical entity. There is no proof that APD exists in isolation, separate from learning disabilities, autism, dyslexia or ADD / ADHD. 

At Neuroplan, we provide information and online treatment for auditory processing difficulties for children and teens within the context of recognized diagnoses such as learning disabilities, autism, dyslexia and ADD / ADHD

It not possible to inherit auditory processing difficulties, because processing abilities develop as neurons connect after birth. It is likely that some children inherit a propensity toward having problems and that environmental exposure makes a crucial difference in the outcome.

The elderly neuroscientist who fought to have the fan removed knew about genetic propensity. He was aware that it might not be his grandson who suffered the most. He knew that some of the infants in that nursery could be highly vulnerable to auditory processing problems later in life.

Secondary Students and Adults

A diagnosis of auditory processing disorder (APD) is less controversial in adults. It is possible to acquire an auditory processing disorder subsequent to a hearing loss, a brain tumour or another type of acquired brain injury. A person with no previous learning or attention difficulties can suddenly have problems with listening when there is too much background noise.

  • Teens and adults with auditory processing difficulties struggle to learn by listening. The discouragement and consequences can persist throughout the lifespan. On the other hand, they can be successful in highly visual or creative endeavors.

Sound engineers have designed many solutions to reduce background noise in public settings. Theatres, churches and other large arena’s are equipped with loudspeaker systems. Directional microphones are designed to pick up a clear signal without much environmental noise.

There are also individual solutions. Hearing aids have special circuitry to help people.

Teacher Microphone

FM systems have a microphone for the teacher or presenter. This allows a speaker’s voice to be transmitted directly to listeners who are using receivers that are set to a given radio frequency. Alternatively, the speaker's voice can be broadcast to the whole room by speakers. This lets listeners hear the speaker’s voice without any background noise. 

Unfortunately, very few classrooms are equipped with these solutions.

The struggles of people with auditory processing difficulties were well understood by the elderly neuroscientist. Furthermore, his research underlined the connection between sensory exposure and brain mapping. His outrage is relevant to the increase in popularity of white noise machines used by new parents. 

Think about it. White noise machines could be harming babies. Shouldn't new parents be warned about the possible consequences?

Why are white noise machines so popular with young parents?

There are many online blogs that recommend using white noise to help babies sleep. They go so far as to say that it should be used all night long and at every nap until the baby is 12 months of age.

White Noise For Babies

Benefits for Parents

Companies that sell white noise machines are capitalizing on the difficulties parents face in getting babies to sleep. Here are some examples of the arguments that are used to convince parents to use white noise:

  • New parents quickly learn that babies calm down to a shushing sound. A device can produce a shushing sound longer and at a better volume than we can. Thus, the device helps babies cry less.
  • White noise helps parents sleep better because it masks the small noises the baby makes.
  • White noise is easy to wean off at 1 year of age. You just turn off the machine.

Benefits for Babies

These companies evoke powerful emotions in new parents by claiming that the babies themselves actually benefit from white noise. The claims are evident on the packaging, on sales sites and on blogs. For example:

  • Babies get stressed by the stimulation of lights, faces and excitement. White noise creates a safe space by blocking out stimulation when they need to sleep.
  • Babies who are napping hit a sleep arousal at about 20 to 45 minutes. Using white noise can block the sounds of siblings or the doorbell and help the baby navigate these arousals and have a longer nap.
  • Some blogs claim that white noise reduces the chances of Sudden Infant Death syndrome (SIDS).

Are parents making a terrible mistake?

While the argument regarding SIDS is emotionally compelling, parents should realize that it is a sales tactic. There is no proof that white noise machines prevent SIDS. For advice on how to prevent SIDS, refer to advice from reputable sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Are parents making a terrible mistake by using white noise to teach their baby’s brain to stop paying attention in noisy situations? This behavior is a diagnostic feature of learning disabilities, dyslexia, autism and attention deficit disorder. Will there be lifelong consequences for babies who have spent their first year of life being exposed to white noise?

Using white noise for babies might result in auditory processing difficulties later in life. This could lead to problems with speech, language and learning. Do you agree? What do you think?