As a mother of two troubled sleepers, a maternal mental health specialist working with new moms and a pediatric sleep expert who has had the honor of helping thousands of families improve their babies, there is one thing I have seen make THE biggest difference in a baby's sleep. And if you ask anyone who has worked with me, they’ll tell you exactly what that is - white noise!
I truly believe that white noise is the miracle worker of sleep. Now, of course you're going to need to put other things in motion - like removing sleep props and altering a schedule - but using white noise takes very little effort on your part and can give you BIG gains in the sleep department. Everyone in my house – including the parents – still uses a white noise machine each and every night (despite my children now being 7 and 4). And we all sleep better because of it!
But, I hear from exhausted parents often that tell me they just aren't seeing the results they want with white noise, that they aren't sure of how loud it should be or even what kind of white noise is best. It's confusing - especially when you're sleep deprived and just desperate for a good night's sleep. These are common complaints, so if you're thinking the same thing - I want you first to know that you aren't alone.
But I need you to trust me here. :) White noise really can make the biggest difference in your baby's sleep - I've seen it happen over and over again! In order for the white noise to be really effective, it needs to be done correctly. And I'm going to walk you through exactly how to use white noise to help your baby or toddler sleep better. Read on - you'll be so glad you did!
Here are some common mistakes parents make when it comes to white noise– and how to avoid making them.
Assuming baby won’t benefit from white noise
Even if you got lucky with an “easy” newborn baby or if it didn't work for your older kids, using white noise with your baby is a MUST in my book. Babies who are great sleepers as newborns have been known to have their sleep completely fall apart around the 3-4 month mark. First, there is the dreaded 4 month regression (where baby’s sleep patterns change forever and they often start to wake at the end of sleep cycles). This is also the time when babies become more alert and aware, begin to wean from the swaddle or pacifier and when the calming reflexes of the 4th trimester disappear. The loss of these sleep props - and the ongoing changes to a baby's brain - can send them into a tailspin of bad sleep. However, using white noise throughout this time can really help provide consistency to your baby’s bedtime and nap time routine. It's role is crucial in helping cue your baby that it’s now time to calm down and sleep - even with their developmental leaps and changes. It's for this reason, I recommend using white noise at least through the first year (and longer, if you choose!).
Using the wrong white noise
Surprisingly, not all white noises are made equally. There are actually two distinct kinds of white noise – high pitch and low pitch – and they can be used for two very different reasons. High pitch white noise is more harsh – think sirens, alarms, beeps. They’re great for getting a baby/child’s attention but terrible for sleep (obviously!). Low-pitched white noise is repetitive, calm and rather trance-like…and perfect for lulling us to sleep.
Reading this, you may think that it seems obvious that you would use a low pitched white noise for sleep, but often even that is not quite enough to make the biggest difference. For instance, many families will try to recreate the womb by using the heartbeat sound but that is actually not what researchers think a baby hears in the womb. Instead, it’s more like a constant deep whooshing noise (for reference, it's the level you would hear if you put your head under the water in a tub with the faucet running). So, a continuous noise that sounds more like the deep continuous noise of the womb (like rain or a hairdryer) is much more effective than ocean waves or nature sounds (or other sounds that mimic patterns like a heartbeat). And even then, you may still need to play around a bit in order to determine WHICH continuous noise YOUR baby prefers (rain, hairdryer, vacuum, etc).
Using the wrong volume level
In order to be effective in soothing crying, white noise needs to mimic the sound level of the baby’s wails. As we all know – that can be quite loud! A baby’s cries have actually shown to be above 100dB (for reference, a loud hair dryer is around 90dB). Thankfully for us parents, we will instinctively “shhh” a crying baby to match their level of crying and soothe.
But when it comes to sleep and using white noise machines in our place, parents are often afraid to use a volume that is too high. This is actually a valid concern – especially following a 2014 study that showed that white noise machines used for 8 continuous hours at a level of 85dB or higher may cause harm. However, I definitely don't recommend just forgoing it totally! It’s very easy to use a white noise machine for sleeping and NOT cause harm to your baby's hearing. The most effective way to use white noise is to boost the volume levels based on your baby’s crying. For instance, if your baby is upset or fussy because of teething, illness or sleep coaching, then you'll want to start at a higher volume at first. Then, once your baby is asleep, you can lower the volume to about 65dB (typically a 4 or 5 on a scale of 10) for the remainder of the night.
Not using white noise often enough
Some parents are comfortable using the white noise overnight but don’t realize all of the other magical qualities it possesses. For instance, for a colicky baby, using white noise during crying periods - like the dreaded witching hour - can actually help soothe and stop the crying (especially when coupled with swaddling, swinging and sucking). This is also true for babies who can’t stand long car rides and cry the entire time (I used to play white noise in the car to get my babies to sleep on long car rides - and it still works for my 4 year old!). And for curious babies who can’t get through a feeding without becoming distracted, white noise is the perfect calming device. In each of these scenarios, white noise can help calm a baby.
As you see, when it's used correctly, there are SO many ways that white noise can complement your calming techniques and lead to better sleep for your baby - and you! And now that you have the knowledge to do just that, I hope you feel more empowered to go give it a try...starting tonight! :) .
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Jennifer Howard, CLC, CHBE
As a maternal mental health and pediatric sleep expert, I am passionate about helping tired mamas thrive throughout the many seasons of motherhood. I'm a Nationally Certified Professional Life Coach and Masters Level Therapist specializing in parental mental wellness, marriage/partnership strength and pediatric sleep and soothing.
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