Hey guys, today we are talking about white noise. This is actually the topic of one of my most popular blog posts and it’s surprisingly controversial, so I really wanted to dig deep and help you understand the science of white noise and how to use it as a truly positive force for your family’s sleep.
If you’ve listened to previous episodes, then you know that I am mom to two kiddos who were truly troubled sleepers. Once I understood baby sleep, I was able to help them. But I’ve also had the honor of helping thousands of families improve their baby’s sleep over the last several years and there is one thing I have seen make THE biggest difference in a baby's sleep that takes so very little effort on your part. 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 is your most hands off piece of the puzzle and it 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!
I hear from exhausted parents often how much of a change it has made for their families as well. But, I also hear from parents who are afraid to use white noise. There is a lot of misinformation out there about it and, because of that, they’re scared to use it. Sometimes even if they do try it, they 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. But it does not have to be overwhelming.
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! But, in order for the white noise to be really effective, it needs to be done correctly.
So, today I'm going to walk you through exactly how to use white noise to help your baby or toddler sleep better, but first I want to tackle the misleading articles out there head on. There is one study in particular that I’ve seen circling the internet and mommy blogs that suggests that using white noise can harm your baby’s hearing and stunt their growth.
This study, published in the Pediatrics Journal, tested noise machines from 30-200 centimeters away and found that all but one of the white noise machines they tested exceeded 50 decibels (the recommended amount by the AAP). However, the researchers and the AAP did NOT take the conclusions of the study and recommend against the use of white noise completely. Instead, they recommended keeping the decibels to below 50 and keeping the white noise machine across the room. For reference, in the study and at the lowest level, the noise machine was 1 foot away from a baby’s ear, which is obviously not what you’re going to do anyway.
So, with all of that in mind, I want to make a blanket statement again that I LOVE white noise machines and think that they definitely have a place in every baby and toddler’s room - as long as they are used appropriately.
Now, let’s talk about the most common mistakes parents make when it comes to white noise– and how you can avoid making them.
But, even 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. And it's for this reason, because developmental leaps and shifts happen frequently throughout the first year, that I recommend using white noise at least until your baby’s first birthday (and longer, if you choose!).
2. 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 with your baby. High pitch white noise is more harsh – think sirens, alarms, beeps. They’re actually 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 actually much more effective at replicating the womb 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).
3. Using the wrong volume level
For sleep, the recommendation is to keep the decibel level below 50 - and I would recommend keeping the white noise machine at least 6-7 feet away from your baby throughout the night. But, as I’ve said, there are several other ways to use white noise with your baby. For instance, in order to be effective in soothing crying, white noise needs to mimic the sound level of your 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 them.
In fact, 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 50dB (typically a 4 or 5 on a scale of 10) for the remainder of the night, which again is the level guidelines in place in the NICU.
4. 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. I actually love to use it to soothe crying as well. For a colicky baby, using white noise in the background 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 finally, 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 to soothe and calm your baby.
Ok, so there you have it. If you use the right decibel level for the situation and use it in the right scenarios, there are just 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! :)
Links to my favorite white noise machines:
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Jennifer Howard, LPC, CLC, CHBE
A licensed therapist and pediatric sleep expert shares her infant and toddler sleep & maternal mental health expertise through weekly solo shows and interviews.