Emily Oster

6 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

White Noise and Developmental Delays

Why you should drown out the scaremongering

Emily Oster

6 min Read

After day care and plastics, perhaps the most common group of panic headlines on Instagram involve white noise. White noise as cause of development delays. White noise interfering with speech. White noise causing hearing loss. Often these claims are very vague — “Is White Noise Ruining Your Child?” — leaving a lot of room for imagination.

For example, the other day, someone sent me a reel in which someone first claimed that white noise has been shown “by research” to cause developmental delays and then said: “I’m not saying it’s the worst thing, but it’s also not the best thing.”

This has echoes, for me, of the rhetoric around things like coffee, or even antidepressants, in pregnancy. It’s non-specific, both in the type of threat and the degree, and makes it sound like you could do this if you’re a person who is cavalier about your child’s well-being. Which you aren’t! At the same time, as with coffee or antidepressants in pregnancy, there are reasons you might want to expose your baby to white noise while they sleep. Namely, white noise has been shown to help infants sleep better and stay asleep longer.

All this is to say: to evaluate the claims about any dangers of white noise, we need to be specific about what they are and why you might be concerned. Today I’m going to dive into this issue of “white noise and developmental delays.” Ultimately, this is in the hopes of laying these concerns to rest.

Issue 1: Noisy daytime environments

To understand the claims about white noise, it is important to separate the impact of noisy environments during the day from the nighttime white noise that many infants and young children are exposed to. I want to start with the first part of this.

A very nice 2017 summary paper discusses the issue of noisy environments for young children. The authors make a few salient points. First, intermittent loud noises can be stressful for all individuals, not just children. For example, living near a train line or an airport, where you are unexpectedly and frequently exposed to very high-decibel noise, may be linked to stress and poor sleep.

Second, and more relevant to young children, the presence of significant background noise can impair language learning. Here’s how to think about this: Imagine that you’re a 2-year-old trying to learn to speak. You do this by hearing the words that adults and older children say around you, seeing how their mouths move, and absorbing this. If you’re in a loud environment all the time — a very loud classroom, or a setting in which the television is playing loudly in the background all the time — it is harder to hear what is being said, and harder to absorb it. There is experimental evidence from young children in laboratory settings showing that toddlers are less likely to learn new words in an environment with very loud background noise.

In this sense, “developmental delays” in language could be more likely to appear — and I say “could” because we do not have any credible epidemiological data that directly links later language development to being in a loud environment — if kids are growing up consistently exposed to loud background noise while they are awake and learning language.

This work, while I think it is reasonably compelling, is not usually the question parents come to this topic with. Normally they are asking about white noise at night.

Issue 2: Hearing loss

Continual exposure to loud noises, among both children and adults, can lead to hearing loss. This is why people who work in, say, jobs with jackhammering all day wear headphones. One concern with white noise, even at night, is that it might lead to hearing loss in infants.

It is true that hearing loss can lead to difficulties with language learning, for the same reasons discussed above. If you cannot hear what is being said, it’s harder to learn to speak. The question is whether white noise at night causes hearing loss.

I wrote about hearing loss months ago in detail, so I will not fully revisit it here. The bottom line is that you should keep your white noise below 70 to 75 decibels (when it is heard in the crib), and there are phone apps you can get that will tell you decibel levels. At these levels, there is evidence in favor of improved sleep (which is, by the way, good for development) and no evidence of hearing loss.

Read the last post if you’re worried, test the decibel levels, and do not worry about this.

Issue 3: Something vague about auditory processing

The final set of concerns raised are in the vague space of “auditory processing brain changes.” The idea is that perhaps exposure to white noise changes how our brain processes noise in general, which might have negative effects.

The evidence in support of this is indirect and weak. We have, for example, a speculative paper suggesting that white-noise therapy for tinnitus in adults might not be the best approach. There is some work in rats showing that 24-hour exposure to white noise has small impacts on parts of the brain that do auditory processing. It is unclear what this means in practice or how it could translate to people or how it would differ without 24-hour exposure or etc., etc. It’s not that it is not interesting! Basic research science about the brain in rats is interesting. But it’s not, at this point, meaningful or actionable for us.

Summary

I spend a lot of time in this newsletter complaining about observational studies where one thing is correlated with another. The evidence here doesn’t even come close to that low bar. There is nothing out there that shows a correlation between white noise at night and any kind of learning or auditory disorder, let alone a causal impact.

The scientific and medical literature on white noise is largely about how it can be used therapeutically to improve sleep in all kinds of populations (older adults, infants, kids with cancer, shift workers, etc.). Since we know how important sleep is, it’s very likely that if we looked at these correlations, they’d actually show white noise improving outcomes, simply due to better sleep.

The TL;DR on this is simple: Any claims about the dangers of white noise for baby sleep are not based on anything meaningful in the data. Do you have to use white noise? Of course not. You don’t have to do anything as a parent, and there are many good choices. But if white noise is working for your child and they’re sleeping well, keep it. In an ideal world, it will drown out the sound of the scaremongering Instagram reels.

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Do you brand things a certain way to get your kid to accept it? Like calling carrots “rabbit popsicles”? Or telling them to put on their “super speed socks” in the morning? Share your rebrands in the comments below! You never know who you might be helping out 👇

#emilyoster #funnytweets #relatabletweets #parentingjokes #kidssaythedarndestthings

Do you brand things a certain way to get your kid to accept it? Like calling carrots “rabbit popsicles”? Or telling them to put on their “super speed socks” in the morning? Share your rebrands in the comments below! You never know who you might be helping out 👇

#emilyoster #funnytweets #relatabletweets #parentingjokes #kidssaythedarndestthings
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Today is the first episode of a new biweekly series on my podcast: Late-Night Panic Google. On these mini-episodes, you’ll hear from some familiar names about the questions keeping them up at night, and how data can help. First up: @claireholt!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #emilyoster #claireholt #parentingstruggles #parentingtips #latenightpanicgoogle

Have you ever panic-googled a parenting question when everyone else is asleep? If so, you’re not alone.

Today is the first episode of a new biweekly series on my podcast: Late-Night Panic Google. On these mini-episodes, you’ll hear from some familiar names about the questions keeping them up at night, and how data can help. First up: @claireholt!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #emilyoster #claireholt #parentingstruggles #parentingtips #latenightpanicgoogle
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Sun safety is a must for all ages, especially babies! Here are my tips for keeping your littlest ones protected in the sunshine:
☀️ Most importantly, limit their time out in hot weather. (They get hotter than you do!)
☀️ Keep them in the shade as much as possible when you’re out.
☀️ Long-sleeve but lightweight clothing is your friend, especially on the beach, where even in the shade you can get sunlight reflecting off different surfaces.
☀️ If you want to add a little sunscreen on their hands and feet? Go for it! But be mindful as baby skin tends to more prone to irritation.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on the data around sun and heat exposure for babies.

#sunsafety #babysunscreen #babyhealth #parentdata #emilyoster

Sun safety is a must for all ages, especially babies! Here are my tips for keeping your littlest ones protected in the sunshine:
☀️ Most importantly, limit their time out in hot weather. (They get hotter than you do!)
☀️ Keep them in the shade as much as possible when you’re out.
☀️ Long-sleeve but lightweight clothing is your friend, especially on the beach, where even in the shade you can get sunlight reflecting off different surfaces.
☀️ If you want to add a little sunscreen on their hands and feet? Go for it! But be mindful as baby skin tends to more prone to irritation.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on the data around sun and heat exposure for babies.

#sunsafety #babysunscreen #babyhealth #parentdata #emilyoster
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OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio!

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio! ...

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio!

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio! ...

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio!

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio! ...

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We now have much better data on this, and the bulk of the evidence seems to reject the link between sleep position and stillbirth or other negative outcomes. So go ahead and get some sleep however you are most comfortable. 💤

Sources:
📖 #ExpectingBetter pp. 160-163
📈 Robert M. Silver et al., “Prospective Evaluation of Maternal Sleep Position Through 30 Weeks of Gestation and Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 134, no. 4 (2019): 667–76. 

#emilyoster #pregnancy #pregnancytips #sleepingposition #pregnantlife

Is side sleeping important during pregnancy? Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on whether sleep position affects pregnancy outcomes.

Being pregnant makes you tired, and as time goes by, it gets increasingly hard to get comfortable. You were probably instructed to sleep on your side and not your back, but it turns out that advice is not based on very good data.

We now have much better data on this, and the bulk of the evidence seems to reject the link between sleep position and stillbirth or other negative outcomes. So go ahead and get some sleep however you are most comfortable. 💤

Sources:
📖 #ExpectingBetter pp. 160-163
📈 Robert M. Silver et al., “Prospective Evaluation of Maternal Sleep Position Through 30 Weeks of Gestation and Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 134, no. 4 (2019): 667–76.

#emilyoster #pregnancy #pregnancytips #sleepingposition #pregnantlife
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#pregnancy #pregnancycomplications #pregnancyjourney #preeclampsiaawareness #postpartumjourney #emilyoster

My new book, “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available for preorder at the link in my bio!

I co-wrote #TheUnexpected with my friend and maternal fetal medicine specialist, Dr. Nathan Fox. The unfortunate reality is that about half of pregnancies include complications such as preeclampsia, miscarriage, preterm birth, and postpartum depression. Because these are things not talked about enough, it can not only be an isolating experience, but it can also make treatment harder to access.

The book lays out the data on recurrence and delves into treatment options shown to lower risk for these conditions in subsequent pregnancies. It also guides you through how to have productive conversations and make shared decisions with your doctor. I hope none of you need this book, but if you do, it’ll be here for you 💛

#pregnancy #pregnancycomplications #pregnancyjourney #preeclampsiaawareness #postpartumjourney #emilyoster
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We are better writers than influencers, I promise. Thanks to our kids for filming our unboxing videos. People make this look way too easy. 

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We are better writers than influencers, I promise. Thanks to our kids for filming our unboxing videos. People make this look way too easy.

Only two weeks until our book “The Unexpected” is here! Preorder at the link in my bio. 💙
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This is why good data is so important! When we can trust the data, we can trust our choices. And this study shows there is no blame to be placed on pregnant women here. So if you have a migraine or fever, please take your Tylenol.

#tylenol #pregnancy #pregnancyhealth #pregnancytips #parentdata #emilyoster

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While doctors have long said Tylenol was safe, confusing studies, panic headlines, and even a lawsuit have continually stoked fears in parents. As a result, many pregnant women have chosen not to take it, even if it would help them.

This is why good data is so important! When we can trust the data, we can trust our choices. And this study shows there is no blame to be placed on pregnant women here. So if you have a migraine or fever, please take your Tylenol.

#tylenol #pregnancy #pregnancyhealth #pregnancytips #parentdata #emilyoster
...

How many words should kids say — and when? Comment “Link” for a DM to an article about language development!

For this graph, researchers used a standardized measure of vocabulary size. Parents were given a survey and checked off all the words and sentences they have heard their child say.

They found that the average child—the 50th percentile line—at 24 months has about 300 words. A child at the 10th percentile—near the bottom of the distribution—has only about 50 words. On the other end, a child at the 90th percentile has close to 600 words. One main takeaway from these graphs is the explosion of language after fourteen or sixteen months. 

What’s valuable about this data is it can give us something beyond a general guideline about when to consider early intervention, and also provide reassurance that there is a significant range in this distribution at all young ages. 

#cribsheet #emilyoster #parentdata #languagedevelopment #firstwords

How many words should kids say — and when? Comment “Link” for a DM to an article about language development!

For this graph, researchers used a standardized measure of vocabulary size. Parents were given a survey and checked off all the words and sentences they have heard their child say.

They found that the average child—the 50th percentile line—at 24 months has about 300 words. A child at the 10th percentile—near the bottom of the distribution—has only about 50 words. On the other end, a child at the 90th percentile has close to 600 words. One main takeaway from these graphs is the explosion of language after fourteen or sixteen months.

What’s valuable about this data is it can give us something beyond a general guideline about when to consider early intervention, and also provide reassurance that there is a significant range in this distribution at all young ages.

#cribsheet #emilyoster #parentdata #languagedevelopment #firstwords
...