Q&A: white noise and language delay

Christianna (with the beautiful name) writes:

"My six-month-old son, Ben, sleeps with a
white noise machine on in his room.  We use it at naptimes and during
the night to mask household noises.  His room shares a wall with the
kitchen and our house is quite small.  I recently read an article about
a study suggesting that exposing infants to continuous white noise may
delay hearing and possibly language development.  Here’s a link to the
WebMD article
. Now I’m concerned that the white noise, something I assumed to be
harmless and quite helpful in bringing on sleep, is actually harming my
son and delaying language development!  Have you heard of this study?
What’s your take on it? I’d appreciate any insight you may have."

I love it when readers send links as part of the actual question! It does my lazy heart good.

Anyway, I think this is a case of the write-up of the study findings not saying the important parts. If you read the article (and go ahead–it’s short), all it’s saying is that rats who were exposed to constant white noise didn’t have language centers in their brains that were as developed as rats who weren’t exposed to the constant white noise did. What it didn’t mention is that that was probably not because of the white noise per se, but because the rats weren’t hearing other sounds that would develop those centers.

In a way, it would be as if researchers reported with alarm that kids who are only exposed to English at home all day don’t have brain centers that are primed to make the sounds used in Russian. Is this a problem? Only if you want your kids to magically learn to speak Russian while you expose them only to English.

Am I being snarky? Sorry. I haven’t had enough caffeine yet this morning. My point is that there’s no reason to think, at least from what this experiment is showing, that using white noise to help a baby sleep is a problem, as long as that baby also gets exposed to plenty of other sounds, including speech, during the rest of the day and while awake. It’s kind of proof writ large that what you give kids (well, rats, actually) is what you get from them. Give them speech and you get speech. Give them music and you get music. Give them white noise (and nothing else) and you get a brain that only produces white noise.

For me, the most interesting part of this study is the last line (isn’t it always?):

"We are already using this [white noise] research to better intervene
in children who are struggling because their auditory systems process
information in a fuzzy way," she says.

If they can mess around with this thing with the rats and figure out a way to help kids with processing problems, that will be a stellar use of time and money (and rodents, for those who aren’t opposed to animal testing).

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