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White Noise For Babies: Worth Keeping or Time to Silence the Noise?

babies blog sleep environment toddler white noise
White noise machine for babies

Have you heard the recent noise about white noise? There has been some concern regarding the impact of white noise on the brain. In particular, the concern centers around a possible negative affect on hearing in small babies and resulting language delay.

Is this true? Is it time to silence the white noise? Before you rush into your nursery and pull the plug, let's take a step back and look at what we know and what we don't know. 

What we know about white noise and babies

One: White noise is often used to mask background noise and promote sleep. This can be very helpful for parents to use in their baby's nursery. Parents and older siblings make various noises, sometimes loud ones, moving around the house doing the tasks of daily life. It can also be helpful to help mask road noise, pets or neighboring dogs, and other potential sleep disruptors.  

Two: Most (all?) sound machines can be set too loudly. A 2014 study published in Pediatrics by Dr. Sarah Hugh and others examined 14 "Infant sleep machines" -  white noise machines specifically marketed for babies. All 14 machines (totaling 65 various sounds) were played at maximum volume at 3 separate distances from the measuring device. This device was simulated to mimic the ear canal of a 6 month old baby. 

The distances measured:

  • 30 cm/~1 ft - designed to replicate placement on a crib rail
  • 100 cm/ ~3 ft - designed to replicated placement near a crib
  • 200 cm/ ~7 ft - designed to replicate placement across the room from the crib

The study found that at the closest distance measured (30 cm), all 14 machines exceeded the current recommended maximum noise level for nurseries in hospitals (50 decibels) when used at maximum volume. Even at the furthest distance measured (200 cm) from the simulated ear canal, all but 1 machine still exceeded 50 decibels when set at max volume.  Bottom line: most, if not all, sound machines can be far too loud when used at max volume for an extended duration. 

Three: Noise can damage hearing and have other negative effects. When it is too loud or too frequent, it is well established fact that noise can damage hearing. A common example of this is loud music or machinery. We also know that noise can contribute to stress and related physical effects such as headaches. Some noises interfere with sleep. In addition, babies and children with sensory processing struggles may find various noises irritating or overwhelming.

Four: Noise can stimulate the brain in positive ways. We know steady background noise can help mask intermittent environmental noises that may be distracting. This can have a positive effect on on sleep. 

Five: Some background noise can negatively impact hearing. A study from 2003 published in Science looked at rat pups and found that exposure to continuous, unpatterned noise (such as white noise) at a level high enough to mask background noise but low enough to protect hearing had a delay in the development of their hearing compared to rat pup not exposed to the same noise. Once the stimulus was removed, the rat pups' hearing did mature to normal abilities.  (Important note: the noise was continuous, not on only during sleep periods. This study has not been replicated in human babies and likely never will be attempted). 

Six: Some babies dislike white noise. There are very few things that are universally liked by everyone. Some babies love it, others are irritated by it. 

So, is it time to ditch the white noise?

Not so fast.

One:  White noise truly can be helpful for sleep as young children often sleep when there is a good deal of household noise, or there is noise outside the home that would otherwise disturb their sleep. Hearing and its impact on speech development is certainly very important, but getting enough sleep is also very important for a baby's health and development. 

Two: Use white noise wisely. Don't put the machine on full blast right next to your baby's head. Instead, put the machine across the room and use a decibel reader (there are several free apps available on smart phone app stores) to check and make sure it is not above 50 decibels when checked where your baby's head will be laying. Use the white noise for sleep only, and remember to turn it off in the morning.

(Side note and affiliate link: If remembering to turn off the white noise after nap and in the morning is a struggle, the Hatch and Hatch+ are great options as you can set a program to automatically turn it on only during certain hours.)

Three: Provide a language-rich environment during the day. Talk to your baby, sing songs, read a book, and do all the normal parent-baby things that you are already doing. Just do them with the white noise off to provide a language-rich environment. 

Four: Remember there is still a lot we don't know. We do know that white noise can positively impact sleep, can negatively impact hearing development in baby rats, and some types of noise can cause hearing damage.  Also, as of yet, there are no conclusive studies on white noise during sleep + hearing + speech development looking at older babies or toddlers. The limited information on white noise + babies that we do have is specific to very young babies. It may or may not hold true for older babies and toddlers. 

Making an informed choice regarding white noise

Using white noise to help your baby's sleep is not an inherently right or wrong decision at any age. Only you can decide what the best thing is for your family. 

It is important to remember that white noise is not a cure-all for sleep problems. True, it is known that white noise can aid sleep by masking background noises. But, background noises are rarely the sole cause of sleep struggles in babies and toddlers. 

It is crucial to remember that:

  • White noise won't help a baby sleep through the night before they are ready
  • White noise can't make up for nap and bedtime timings that are off track
  • White noise won't help a baby who wakes from cold, a dirty diaper, or just wanting a cuddle
  • White noise won't help a baby get back to sleep if that baby needs parental action such as feeding or rocking in order to fall back to sleep.

So yes, white noise can very much be helpful for sleep but it is important to use it for the right reasons - to mask background noise. White noise is not a sleep cure-all.

Also, if you opt to use white noise check the volume. To do a quick test, place your head where your baby's head goes and to listen: if it sounds harsh, irritating, or too loud, it will sound the same to your baby. Make sure it sounds pleasant and is at an easy to tolerate volume.

While that is a great test when you are in a hurry, do be sure to to go back later and check with a decibel reader to make sure the volume of your whiten noise machine is not exceeding 50 decibels. 

I personally continue to use white noise with both of my children (and myself!) and have no plans to stop.  If you do opt to ditch the white noise, it is super easy! Just turn down the volume every few nights until you can turn it off. 

As I always  say, you are the expert on your baby. My role as a a pediatric sleep coach is to provide evidence based information that you can use to make the decision that is best for your family. Love or silence the white noise? That is up to you! 

Are you ready to make sleep a thing at your house, but feel stuck or unsure how? Working with parents 1-1 to take the stress out of baby and toddler sleep is my joy.

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