For a parent with a newborn baby in the household, sleep can seem like only a dream. Even if you’re past the waking up every few hours for feedings phase, your baby might still have some trouble falling (or staying) asleep.
To help your baby sleep better at night, pediatricians often recommend relaxing activities, such as warm baths. But when nothing seems to work, parents might turn to alternative measures like white noise.
While white noise might help your baby fall asleep, there are some potential long-term consequences.
It’s important to look at both the pros and cons before using white noise as your go-to baby sleeping measure.
What’s the deal with white noise for babies?
White noise refers to sounds that mask other sounds that might occur naturally in an environment. If you live in a city, for example, white noise could help block out noises associated with traffic.
Specific sounds might be used to help encourage sleep regardless of environmental noises. Examples include rainforest or soothing beach sounds.
There are even machines specifically designed for use with infants. Some are equipped with instrumental lullabies, and even a heartbeat noise that is used to mimic that of the mother.
A groundbreaking 1990 study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that white noise could be helpful. Forty newborns were studied, and it was found that 80 percent were able to fall asleep after five minutes of hearing white noise.
The pros of white noise for babies
- Babies may be able to fall asleep faster with white noise in the background.
- White noise can block out household noise such as older siblings.
- Some infant white noise machines have a heartbeat setting mimicking the mother, which is comforting for newborns.
White noise may aid sleep
The most obvious benefit of white noise for babies is the fact that it could help them fall asleep. If you notice your baby tends to fall asleep at noisy times outside of regular nap time or bedtime, then they might respond positively to white noise.
Your baby might be accustomed to being surrounded by noise, so a completely quiet environment could have the opposite affect when it comes time to sleep.
Sleep aids can mask household noises
White noise machines could also benefit families who have multiple children who are different ages.
For instance, if you have a baby who needs a nap, but another child who no longer takes naps, white noise can help block out noises of siblings so your baby can sleep better.
The cons of white noise for babies
- White noise machines may exceed recommended noise limits for babies.
- Babies can become dependent on white noise machines to be able to fall asleep.
- Not all babies respond well to white noise.
Potential developmental problems
Despite the potential benefits, white noise doesn’t always offer risk-free peace and quiet. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) tested 14 white noise machines designed for infants. They found that all of them exceeded recommended noise limits, which is set at 50 decibels. In addition to increased hearing problems, the study found that using white noise increased the risk for language and speech development.
Based on the findings of the AAP, pediatricians recommend that any white noise machines should be placed at least 7 feet away (200 cm) from your baby’s crib. You can also lower the volume on the machine.
Babies might become reliant on white noise
Babies who respond positively to white noise might sleep better at night and during naps, but only if the white noise is consistently available. This could be problematic if your baby is in a situation where they need to sleep at the sound machine is not with them.
Examples include vacations, a night at grandma’s house, or even day care. Such a scenario could become extremely disruptive for everyone involved.
Some babies don’t like white noise
It’s important to realize that white noise doesn’t work for all babies.
Every baby is different when it comes to sleep needs, so white noise could end up being a trial and error process. If you do decide to try white noise, just make sure you do so safely.
The importance of sleep for babies
When adults think of lack of sleep, they often envision cranky, run-down days filled with numerous cups of coffee to make it through. But the effects of not getting enough sleep may not be so obvious in babies and children.
Some of the repercussions of a lack of sleep in little ones include:
- frequent disagreeableness
- extreme behavioral fluctuations
How much sleep does your baby need?
To combat the effects of lack of sleep, it’s also important to know just exactly how much shut-eye your baby really needs. Here are some guidelines for each age group:
- newborns: up to 18 hours total per day, while waking up every few hours for feedings
- 1-2 months: babies can sleep 4-5 hours straight
- 3-6 months: sleep totals at night can range between 8-9 hours, plus short daytime naps
- 6-12 months: 14 hours of sleep total, with 2-3 naps during the day
Keep in mind that these are recommended averages. Every baby is different. Some babies might sleep more, while others don’t need quite as much sleep.
White noise might be a temporary solution for sleep time, but it isn’t a cure-all method for babies. A lack of feasibility and consistency in white noise, combined with potential hazards, can make it more problematic than it’s worth for your baby.
Remember that babies who wake up at night, especially those under 6 months, likely have a discomfort that needs to be alleviated. Therefore, it’s not always reasonable to expect young babies to sleep solidly through the night without needing a bottle, a diaper change, or some cuddling. Talk to your pediatrician if your baby is having trouble sleeping on their own as they age.