Mother’s Voice More Effective in Smoke Alarm for Kids Than High-Pitch Tone

December 13, 2018

A sleeping child is more likely to be awakened by voice alarms than by traditional tone alarms, new research finds.

The researchers found that a sleeping child is about three times more likely to be awakened by one of the three voice alarms with a mother’s voice than by the tone alarm.

Deaths are more likely to occur in residential fires that happen at night while people are sleeping. Smoke alarms are obviously important for preventing these deaths, yet many young children, who tend to sleep more soundly than adults, don’t wake up to traditional high-pitch tone alarms, the researchers say.

In a study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers examined four different smoke alarms to determine which ones worked best to wake children. They tested three alarms that used the mother’s voice in addition to a high-pitch tone smoke alarm commonly used in homes.

The study was conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Sleep Disorders Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. The research included 176 children 5 to 12 years of age studied at a sleep research center in Columbus.

The researchers found that the alarms using the mother’s voice awakened 86-91 percent of children and prompted 84-86 percent to “escape” from the bedroom, compared with 53 percent awakened and 51 percent escaped for the tone alarm.

The study also examined the effect of the different alarms on the amount of time it took the children to “escape” from the bedroom. In a real fire, seconds can make a difference. If a child wakes up but takes too long to leave a burning building, serious injuries or death could occur. The median time to escape for the high-pitch tone alarm was 282 seconds – nearly five minutes – while the median times to escape for the voice alarms ranged from 18 to 28 seconds.

According to the researchers, because the human brain responds differently to the sound of our own name, even during sleep, they also wanted to test whether including the child’s first name in the alarm message made a difference in alarm effectiveness. However, no significant differences were found between each pair of the voice alarms, regardless of whether the child’s name was included in the message.

“Children are remarkably resistant to awakening by sound when asleep,” said Mark Splaingard, MD, co-author of the study and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Children sleep longer and deeper than adults and require louder sounds to awaken than adults. For these reasons, children are less likely to awaken and escape a nighttime home fire. The fact that we were able to find a smoke alarm sound that reduces the amount of time it takes for many children 5 to 12 years of age to wake up and leave the bedroom could save lives.”

The study focused on 5 to 12 year-olds because children younger than 5 years are regarded by the fire safety community as being too developmentally immature to reliably perform self-rescue in a home fire, and therefore must rely on adult rescue. Adolescents (older than 12 years) do not experience the same difficulty as younger children in awakening to a high-pitch tone smoke alarm.

They plan future research into the role of mother’s voice versus a generic female or male voice and testing an alarm that is optimized for waking children among adults to see if the alarm is effective among all age groups.

Source: Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Center for Injury Research and Policy

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