Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Is White Noise Helpful or Harmful for Baby Sleep? Dr. Sarah Mitchell

Using a White Noise Machine to Help Your Baby Sleep?

As a new parent, getting enough high-quality baby sleep is crucial for your little one's growth and development. But young babies often have a hard time falling and staying asleep between feedings and adjusting to their new world outside the womb. That's where using a white noise machine could make a huge difference in establishing healthy sleep patterns.

What is White Noise and How Can it Help Your Baby?

White noise refers to a consistent, unchanging background sound. Examples of white noise are the static-like sound from an untuned radio, the ambient noise of a running vacuum cleaner or air conditioner hum. Unlike music or ocean waves, white noise maintains the same frequencies and volume for extended periods.  This steady, monotone sound can help lull babies to sleep and mask other sounds that may cause them to wake.  This is also known as a white noise generator. 

For fussy babies who have a hard time winding down at bedtime, the calming drone of a white-noise machine helps mask disruptive sounds and create a womb-like environment. This promotes a calming reflex to help your baby fall asleep faster. In fact, the most obvious benefit of white noise is that it blocks out potential disturbances from siblings, pets or outside noises that can disrupt light sleepers.

Research confirms white noise helps little dreamers get better quality and quantity of sleep. The consistent background sound prevents babies from fully waking up during sleep cycle transitions. And white noise has been shown to help infants fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply.

How Does White Noise Help Babies Sleep?

There are several reasons why white noise promotes better sleep in infants:

  1. It mimics sounds heard in the womb - The constant, low-pitched shushing reminds babies of their time in the uterus and triggers a calming effect.
  2. ​This effect can wear off as your baby ages and no longer needs womb like conditions
  3. Blocks disruptive noises - Household noises like voices, pets, TV, or slamming doors can all interrupt baby's sleep. White noise masks these ambient sounds to create a more restful environment.
  4. Aids healthy sleep transitions - Babies often stir slightly between sleep cycles. White noise helps muffle these natural movements so they don't fully wake up.
  5. Calms active brains - Some babies have trouble settling down even when tired. The neutral sound gives their active minds something to focus on, making it easier to fall asleep.

Research on White Noise for Infant Sleep

Multiple studies confirm white noise helps infants sleep better:

  1. A study published in Pediatrics found that playing white noise in the NICU helped premature babies spend more time in deep, restorative sleep.
  2. In a study from the journal Sleep Medicine, 95% of mothers reported their babies woke up less when using a white noise machine at home.
  3. Researchers at Brown University found white noise increased sleep time and reduced night wakings when played for newborns during naps.

The latest BUZZ on White Noise - Is it Harmful? 

 The American Academy of Pediatrics released a technical report October 21st, 2023, "Preventing Excessive Noise Exposure in Infants, Children and Adolescents." that mentions potential hazards to keep in mind.

Here is a summary of key points from the article related to white noise use and infant noise machines:

  1. The AAP policy statement cautions about potential harm from noise machines used for infants.
  2. While some studies show benefits of white noise for infant sleep, others raise concerns about sound levels.
  3. Parents who use infant sleep machines or white noise devices should be counseled on safe use.
  4. Guidelines include placing the device at least 8 feet from the crib, setting volume to 50 decibels or lower, and not using it continuously overnight.
  5. Alternating white noise with other calming techniques can prevent too much sleep association.
  6. Pediatricians should monitor babies exposed to white noise for any speech or hearing delays.
  7. Excessive, continuous white noise exposure could potentially impact auditory development or language acquisition.
  8. More research is needed on appropriate noise levels, durations, and frequencies for infant sleep machines.

Has any research been done on how white noise can impact the developing brain?  It's very limited.  One small study from 1991  by Pujol et al, did a study naming these key points:

Key points:

  1. The human cochlea continues to develop after birth, with maturation occurring up until 2 years of age.
  2. Animal studies show continuous exposure to moderate noise levels can impair cochlear development.
  3. The authors suggest continuous exposure to moderate-level noise at night could potentially disturb the proper development of auditory pathways in human infants.
  4. They advise avoiding continuous noise exposure at night during the period of cochlear maturation.

This source indicates the infant cochlea continues developing after birth and is vulnerable to potential disturbances from constant auditory stimulation at night during this critical period. It cautions against continuous overnight noise exposure in infants to allow normal auditory pathway maturation.

In summary, while white noise can help babies sleep, pediatricians caution parents about potential downsides and provide tips like limiting volume and duration of use. More evidence is still needed on safe use of infant noise machines.

If you want your baby to sleep more with less effort check TThe Art and Science of Teaching Your Baby to Sleep.

My favorite white noise machine is this sleepy sheep to use on the go. 

If you're looking for something more permanent, the Hatch Rest light is useful long term as it offers white noise, a night light and becomes an "okay to wake" clock when you're child becomes a toddler. 

The Bottom Line on White Noise

When used carefully, white noise can be a helpful tool to help babies fall asleep more quickly.  It is a useful tool for newborns to mimic the womb and for older babies to block out rambunctious siblings or consistent background noise.  But overusing it, using it for your entire life or relying solely on white noise to get baby to sleep may interrupt development and leave you disappointed with continued night waking.   As with any sleep training method, pros and cons should be considered. Track your baby’s progress and adjust use of white noise and other techniques as needed.

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