Can white noise help babies sleep?
When your baby isn’t sleeping well, you're likely to receive all sorts of advice. Some of the input you get can sound a little far-fetched or controversial, depending on whom you ask.
Meanwhile, as a new parent, all you really want to know is what actually works — and whether it’s safe.
White noise is one of those suggestions that caregivers are sometimes a bit apprehensive about or aren’t quite sure how to use. Here's what you should know so you can decide for yourself (and your little one).
IN THIS ARTICLE:
What is white noise?
White noise refers to any noise containing many frequencies with equal intensities. Simply put, it’s noise that doesn’t have any pattern to it and is composed of all the sounds the human ear is capable of hearing.
White noise may help some adults and children — and babies!— fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. In addition to white noise machines marketed specifically to improve sleep, there are numerous white noise apps available and even entire YouTube channels dedicated to white noise.
At what age is it best to start?
It's never too early to start using white noise to help your baby sleep through the night or take good naps. White noise can really make a difference in how well your little one sleeps, especially if they struggle to stay asleep for more than 30 minutes.
When should you stop using white noise?
There aren't any definite time limits on how long you should use white noise to help your child sleep. Instead, when to stop using white noise for baby is a decision left up to caregivers, or in some cases, the child.
Some people aim to stop using white noise by the time their child is 2 years old. Others continue to use it until their child is 3 - 4 years old and is able to decide for themselves if they want it playing while they sleep. Plenty of older kids and adults sleep better with it, too.
How does white noise help soothe a baby?
When asked if white noise is good for babies, pediatric sleep experts often respond with a resounding yes! But exactly how does this work?
According to older research, life inside the uterus is quite loud, with noise levels being close to that of a lawnmower (about 90 decibels). Perhaps this is why fussy babies respond to the more intense rumbling sounds, lower tones, and sounds associated with white noise.
White noise mimics womb sounds, such as your heartbeat and digestive noises, and creates a soothing, comfortable, and familiar environment where babies feel protected and calm.
The continuous sounds also help to drown out loud or unexpected noises that can be stimulating to babies or wake them up from their sleep. As part of a pre-sleep routine, white noise can also act as a cue for sleep. With soothing sounds creating a cocoon of sorts, your baby may be more likely to fall asleep faster and to sleep longer.
White noise vs pink noise
When thinking about white noise, we generally think of unrecognizable sounds of static on a TV or radio. The sound of a lawnmower, car engine, vacuum, or hair dryer are also examples of white noise.
Pink noise can be found in nature — running water, rain falling, wind blowing, leaves rustling, waves crashing — and has less varying frequencies than white noise. Many sound machines have options for both white noise and pink noise.
White noise may do a better job of drowning out jarring or very loud noises such as doors slamming, fireworks, and thunder. White noise also more closely resembles what babies hear in the womb. Pink noise works well for masking more subtle noise or continuous sounds such as people talking or the TV playing in another room.
So which is better for babies, white noise or pink noise? While researchers are considering how pink noise may improve cognitive ability and memory when used for adult sleep, more study is needed when it comes to its benefits for babies. Meanwhile, studies show that white noise may decrease the duration of fussiness and increase the duration of sleep.
Is white noise safe for babies?
All this sounds like a win-win, but can white noise hurt baby hearing?
White noise isn't inherently dangerous or bad, but many people wonder about white noise volume being too loud or too close and potentially damaging babies’ ears. In 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) tested 14 white noise machines designed for infants and found that all of the machines at maximum output exceeded hospital-recommended noise levels.
As a result of this study, the AAP released its own recommendations (and reiterated safety concerns in a 2023 policy statement) for how close white noise machines should be to a child’s sleep space and what is considered safe decibel levels.
According to the AAP, white noise machines should be placed at least 7 feet (200 centimeters) away from a baby’s sleep space and the volume should be lower than the maximum volume setting — generally no louder than 50 decibels.
Pros and cons of white noise for babies
While caregivers have used the sound of hair dryers and vacuums to put babies to sleep for decades, an often-quoted but small study published in 1990 in the Archives of Disease in Childhood was the first to offer some proof that white noise can improve infant sleep.
According to the study, 80 percent of babies fell asleep within 5 minutes of listening to white noise. But again, this was a small study — and it was only done on newborns between 2 - 7 days old.
White noise may also block out excess stimulation and thus, reduce stress levels in babies. But older claims that white noise can reduce the risk of SIDS need more current research.
White noise has the potential to damage a child’s delicate hearing and auditory development if not used appropriately. Another drawback of white noise for babies is dependency on white noise to fall asleep, which could be a problem when traveling or if daycare doesn't use white noise.
4 Tips for how to safely use white noise to soothe your baby
Place white noise machines at least 7 feet (200 centimeters) away from your baby’s sleep space
Set the volume lower than the maximum
Only use white noise to calm your baby down and while sleeping
Follow the manufacturer's directions and safety warnings
White noise for babies FAQ
Q: Can white noise damage my baby’s ears?
White noise has the potential to damage a baby’s ears if it is too close to the child’s sleep space or exceeds the maximum recommended decibel limits for extended periods of time.
Q: When should you turn on white noise?
Over time, babies begin to associate hearing white noise with sleep. It can serve as an effective sleepy cue to tell babies sleep is on the horizon. Some caregivers wait to turn on white noise until they lay their baby down for sleep. Others turn on white noise before beginning their bedtime or naptime routine because it also helps babies to relax. If you decide to play white noise throughout your baby’s sleep routine, be sure to keep it at a low volume while reading or singing to your baby.
Q: Should you use a timer or let the white noise play the entire time your baby is sleeping?
Babies, like adults, experience brief awakenings between sleep cycles. When babies wake up between sleep cycles, they check their surroundings and generally fall back to sleep if everything's the same as they remembered it being when they fell asleep. (This is why it’s important that your child learns to fall asleep without parent-dependent sleep associations, such as rocking, once they’re capable of self-soothing.) If your baby is used to falling asleep to the sound of white noise and it’s no longer playing when they wake between sleep cycles, they may wake up fully. To improve the odds your baby will fall right back to sleep it is helpful to keep all things the same throughout the night or for the duration of their nap, including white noise.
Q: What should you look for in a white noise machine?
Since the maximum decibels recommended for adults (85 decibels) exceeds those for children, look for white noise machines that are specifically designed for children. You may also want a white noise machine that’s portable so you can take it with you on vacation or to grandma’s house.
Q: Can white noise be used for naps?
White noise can be used for both nighttime sleep and naps. In fact, white noise is particularly helpful during naps since household and environmental noise is typically loudest during the day.
Q: How many decibels is effective without being damaging?
This is where the experts disagree! When asked how loud should white noise be for baby, the American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested the volume be set to no louder than 50 decibels (about as loud as a quiet dishwasher) to avoid potential hearing damage. However, many very well known pediatric sleep experts claim white noise doesn't have any effect on sleep when played at less than 60 - 65 decibels (about as loud as a running shower).
Q: Is it safe to use a smartphone near my baby for this purpose?
Because cell phones emit radiofrequency radiation, you should always turn your phone to airplane mode when using it for white noise. Additionally, be sure to silence your phone and place it a safe distance from your baby and never inside their sleep space.
Q: Can I just play white noise on my computer?
White noise can be played on a computer. However, computer speakers tend to produce a “hissy” noise — not like the deeper rumbling tones babies hear in the womb — and may not be as effective. There is also the risk that notifications could startle your baby, so you’ll want to be sure all notification alerts are turned to silent.
Q: White noise vs music for babies: which is better?
While music can be very soothing to babies, music can also be too stimulating while babies are sleeping. The frequent changes in pitch and tone are more likely to wake a sleeping baby and are not as helpful in lulling a baby to sleep.
Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.