How To Use White Noise For Babies: 5 Things You Need To Know
Getting a baby to bed on any given night can be a challenge, which is why some parents turn to tools like white noise to help their baby—and themselves—have a good night's sleep. But, while white noise is really popular, it isn't a perfect tool, especially when babies are involved. Here's what you need to know about using white noise for babies, as well as how, exactly, it all works:
Research shows that it can help babies fall asleep within minutes.
That's a claim that's sure to get the attention of any sleep-deprived parent. One older study1 took 20 babies who were between 2 and 7 days old and randomized them into two groups. One group was exposed to white noise when they slept while the other group wasn't. The vast majority of babies in the white noise group (80%) fell asleep within five minutes, while just 25% of the babies who didn't have white noise nodded off during that time. Based on the findings, "white noise may help mothers settle difficult babies," the researchers wrote.
White noise serves two basic functions for babies, according to behavioral sleep psychologist Lynelle Schneeberg, Psy.D., author of Become Your Child's Sleep Coach and director of the Behavioral Sleep Program at Connecticut Children's Medical Center. "It masks intermittent household sounds that might wake the baby (cars honking, doors slamming, [and] dishwasher loading," she says. It also can provide a "sleep cue" for babies. "In other words, hearing the sound from the white noise machine becomes a cue for sleep in the same way that having the television on can be a sleep cue for an adult," Schneeberg says.
However, many white noise machines are too loud for babies.
Research has found that many of the more popular white noise machines that are marketed for use with babies can be too loud for infants when the volume is cranked up. Several sound machines used at full volume exceeded 50 dBA, the current recommended noise limit for infants in hospital nurseries, the Pediatrics study found.
Based on the findings, the researchers recommend that parents keep the volume low. "White noise machines should have their volume set as low as effective, and never louder than conversational level," says Kevin Franck, Ph.D., director of audiology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear.
Always keep it at least 200 centimeters away from your sleeping baby.
That same study published in Pediatrics recommended this distance (which is a little more than 6.5 feet), again, with the volume set low. "Place the infant sound machine as far away as possible from the infant and never in the crib or on a crib rail," says Schneeberg.
While 6.5 feet is the recommended distance, it's perfectly OK to move the white noise machine even farther from your baby if you have the space. "Loudness decreases as a speaker becomes more distant, so ensure that the sound isn't too loud where the baby is," Franck says.
Shut off the white noise machine after your baby is asleep.
It's tempting to keep the white noise going through the night, but it's really not recommended. "Operate the infant sound machine for a short duration of time," Schneeberg advises. She recommends using a timer or shutting it off once your baby is asleep, provided you're still awake.
It's best to taper your baby's white noise machine use over time.
"Anything used to change behavior could become a habit that may be difficult or inconvenient to stop later," Franck says. Basically, it could become harder for your baby to break the white noise machine habit over time if you use a white noise machine every single time they go to sleep.
"I recommend using these only early on—during the first six months of life or so until the baby's sleep consolidates—and then tapering these away over time after infancy so that the child can sleep well with normal household noise and can fall asleep in any environment more easily," Schneeberg says. "Most of us did not grow up sleeping with white noise, and we did OK."
The bottom line:
Experts say a white noise machine can be a great tool for helping your baby sleep at night. Just be sure to keep the volume low.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, relationships, and lifestyle trends with a master’s degree from American University. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Prevention, Self, Glamour, and more. She lives by the beach, and hopes to own a taco truck one day.