When your baby starts having trouble sleeping at night, you may be tempted to reach for anything — from teething toys to books on tape. The first thing that comes to mind might even be white noise machines. They’re easy enough to find in most stores (or online) and they make up one of the oldest methods for helping children fall asleep. In fact, some studies say using such devices can reduce crying among infants by about 50 percent.
But are these so-called “crying sounds” really what’s causing your child distress in order to begin with? According to infant expert Dr. William Sears, many parents think that all babies will instinctively know when it’s time for bedtime. He says this isn’t always true because kids who cry themselves to sleep could also learn not to do it anymore if their environment stays consistent. So, while he acknowledges there are benefits to using white noise products like music CDs, tapes and ear plugs to get them to sleep better, he believes they don’t necessarily work as well as we’d hope. And sometimes, those calming sounds actually cause more harm than good.
So what exactly is white noise? What makes it different from other noises out there? And how much should you use it, anyway? We spoke with experts in pediatric medicine and psychology to answer these questions and give you some tips on whether white noise helps or hurts newborns trying to drift off peacefully into dreamland. Here’s everything you need to know before reaching for that little box next to the crib.
What Is White Noise and How Does It Work?
It turns out, just like adults, babies don’t hear things the same way as us. Instead, they respond best to steady frequencies around 20 hertz. That means if someone were standing right next to you talking, singing or doing something else where only high tones would carry over, then you wouldn’t notice it but a 2-year-old probably would. A CD player playing classical music doesn’t create that kind of frequency range since most of the notes aren’t close together. However, a machine that plays simulated raindrops falling onto a puddle works perfectly because each individual drop creates its own unique tone within that range.
A typical white noise generator uses speakers placed near the headboard of a twin bed, which emit low-frequency waves. Some people prefer portable versions that plug directly into the wall instead. Either way, the goal here is to produce a constant, soft hum or buzz without interruptions. While it seems simple enough, figuring out exactly how long to play certain sounds in order to induce drowsiness takes trial and error. For instance, one study found that 3 minutes was ideal for older siblings, but newborns needed 5 minutes of continuous stimulation in order to calm down. There’s no hard rule here, though. All babies are different.
In addition to potentially waking a parent, loud noises can also irritate sensitive ears and trigger tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. This happens when the brain perceives incoming signals as sound rather than actual vibrations against our eardrums. Fortunately, modern technology provides ways to block out unwanted outside interference. Earplugs come standard with every white noise device sold today. They either fit inside the ear canal or rest behind the tragus, a small piece of cartilage located above the ear drum. You can buy special silicone earmuffs too, although they tend to look goofy and are often expensive.
Now that you understand why white noise works, let’s talk specifics. If you want to try it yourself, these websites offer free downloads of popular songs that simulate white noise.
How Long Do Babies Sleep at Night, Anyway?
While research hasn’t uncovered definitive data yet, most experts agree that the average amount of time between feedings during the day is 12 hours. When babies wake up in the middle of the night, however, it depends on several factors including hunger levels, temperature, mood, age and medical conditions. At least once per hour, nurses recommend changing diapers, cleaning bottles and providing comfort measures like giving baths or burping sessions.
Once nighttime rolls around, expect your baby to stay awake longer than usual. Typically, they’ll take anywhere from three to eight naps throughout the night, spending less time in REM (rapid eye movement), dreaming mode. Although it varies depending on his or her personality, your toddler will usually start nodding off after eating dinner. By 4 months old, toddlers typically go to bed somewhere between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., but they still won’t nap all the way until midnight. Older preschoolers, meanwhile, are ready for bed closer to 7 p.m. Most children under the age of 6 fall asleep faster than that, especially if they’ve had plenty of snacking beforehand.
The Pros of Using White Noise as an Alternative to Other Soothing Sounds
For starters, white noise offers multiple advantages compared with other types of soothing sounds. Unlike songs or lullaby tapes, it allows listeners to tune out distractions and focus solely on relaxing. Parents tell their young ones stories, sing nursery rhymes and read aloud. Because it requires concentration, listening to white noise tends to slow down breathing patterns and heart rates. Studies show that exposure to blue light at night disrupts melatonin production, a hormone responsible for inducing sleepy feelings. With all these positive indicators, it’s clear why doctors suggest putting babies to bed early to avoid potential health risks later in life.
That said, white noise shouldn’t replace quality care altogether. Kids’ development relies heavily on healthy interactions with caregivers. Experts emphasize that consistency is key. Whether you choose to rely on white noise alone or mix it up with other tools for relaxation, making sure your baby sleeps in a dark room, gets regular exercise and eats nutritious meals is equally important.
And speaking of sleep itself, white noise definitely helps babies relax and feel more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. Even if they don’t realize it, they may associate the comforting noises with feeling safe and secure. Plus, it reduces stress and anxiety, allowing them to become familiarized with new environments.
Another benefit is that it’s a great option for patients suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Since hearing loss is common in elderly folks, it becomes harder to communicate verbally with loved ones. White noise generators allow seniors and their families to converse nonverbally, which can improve relationships.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that some sufferers claim that white noise masks painful physical sensations. People with arthritis, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome and migraine headaches reportedly experience relief thanks to the masking effect. Again, it mostly depends on personal preference and needs.
Does White Noise Help or Hurt Infants Who Have Side Effects From Sleeping Medications?
If you’ve tried everything else to get your child to sleep peacefully, maybe it’s time to consider cutting back on medications altogether. One recent study showed that nearly half of all American children took some form of sedative regularly. Of course, taking over-the-counter medicines like herbal tea or valerian root supplements may provide similar results. Yet the authors concluded that physicians should evaluate alternative therapies carefully before recommending them to children with chronic insomnia.
Otherwise, some researchers believe that white noise may exacerbate symptoms associated with restless leg syndrome (RLS). RLS causes uncomfortable sensations along specific parts of the body, particularly legs, feet and pelvis. Usually experienced during evening hours, these movements become progressively worse as the night wears on. Doctors theorize that white noise stimulates muscles involved with maintaining proper posture and blood circulation. As a result, it may worsen discomfort and put additional pressure on joints already prone to developing osteoarthritis.
There’s another concern related to tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. Known primarily as a symptom of aging, tinnitus affects roughly 10 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders. It occurs when nerves send incorrect messages to the auditory system, resulting in phantom noises. These can include whistling, buzzing, rushing water, roaring thunder or screaming voices. Patients report experiencing varying degrees of annoyance, ranging from mild to severe. Many people assume that noise pollution contributes to tinnitus, but it’s unclear whether that’s truly the case. Still, it’s possible that excessive volume from white noise generators could aggravate underlying problems. To test this theory, researchers conducted a double-blinded randomized control trial involving 40 subjects aged 45 to 65. Half received daily 30 minute exposures to white noise at 85 decibels. Afterward, participants reported significant improvements in overall ability to cope with tinnitus symptoms.
Whatever route you decide to take, remember that white noise can’t completely eliminate the risk of side effects. Take advantage of resources like the U.S.’s national poison prevention campaign and consult with a doctor before beginning any treatment plan. Also, keep tabs on your kid’s progress and adjust accordingly. For example, children with allergies or asthma should never receive prolonged amounts of white noise. Your family physician can advise you on how to proceed based on your particular situation.
As far as white noise goes, not everyone agrees on how effective it is for treating insomnia.
Whether or not you believe white noise is safe for babies, the fact remains that it can be an effective tool for helping your little one get to sleep. If you do decide to use white noise, be sure to monitor your baby closely and never leave them unattended while they are sleeping. If you have any concerns about your baby’s sleep habits, be sure to speak with a pediatrician.