The smoke alarm solution that could save the lives of sleeping kids

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock

Kids are more likely to wake when they hear their mother's voice compared to a typical smoke alarm, according to new research which could help prevent child deaths due to house fires.

"Children are remarkably resistant to awakening by sound when asleep," said co-author Dr Mark Splaingard and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital. According to Dr Splaingard, kids sleep longer and deeper than adults and need louder noises to awaken than adults.

"For these reasons, children are less likely to awaken and escape a nighttime home fire, " he says. "The fact that we were able to find a smoke alarm sound that reduces the amount of time it takes for many children five to 12 years of age to wake up and leave the bedroom could save lives."

As part of the study, published in The Journal of PediatricsDr Splaingard and his team tested four different smoke alarms to see which ones were the most effective at waking sleeping children.

The research focused on kids aged between five and 12-years-old as the residential fire-related fatality rate among this age group is higher than teens and adults. "They are potentially capable of performing self-rescue in a residential fire but are extraordinarily unlikely to awaken to a conventional high-frequency residential smoke alarm," the authors note.

Three of the smoke alarms played to the kids used the child's mother's voice, while one was a "conventional residential high-frequency tone" smoke alarm.

All children were taught a simulated escape procedure consisting of getting out of bed, walking to the bedroom door and exiting, which they were told to do when they heard the alarm.

And the results were clear: mum's voice was overwhelmingly more effective than a standard smoke alarm tone. Voice alarms using the child's mum, awakened 86 - 91 per cent of children and prompted 84 -86 per cent to escape the lab bedroom compared to 53 per cent roused and 51 per cent who escaped using the traditional tone.

Sleeping kids were approximately three times more likely to wake when they heard the voice alarm, compared to the tone. And they woke much faster, too. It took the kids around 156 seconds to wake up to the traditional alarm and just two seconds for each voice alarm.

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Interestingly, it didn't matter if the voice alarm contained the child's name or just the behavioural command, "Wake up! Get out of bed! Leave the room!" - both were effective. It was simply mum's voice that mattered. 

"These new findings put us one step closer to finding a smoke alarm that will be effective for children and practical for parents," said lead author Dr Gary Smith director of the Centre for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital. "This study confirmed that a maternal voice alarm is better than a traditional high-pitch tone alarm for waking children and prompting their escape under conditions typical of homes." 

And because the research showed that mum's voice helped their little one escape without specifically using their name, Dr Smith notes that one alarm could work for multiple children sleeping near one another in a home.

"The findings of this study will contribute to the development of a more effective smoke alarm for use in children's sleep areas, which may reduce fire-related morbidity and mortality among children old enough to perform self-rescue," the authors write.