Babies struggle to sleep through the night because they’ve yet to master that specific skill set. What they need in order to get there are specific cues that alert them — condition them into a sense of drowsiness really — to believe that they should be asleep. White noise is a particularly effective way to elicit a Pavlovian reaction, which is why white noise machines are so popular among parents struggling to get some rest. But not all white noise machines are created equal and making one of them work for a child is not as simple as hitting the on switch.
“Any time you bring any sort of thing into your baby’s environment, you need to make sure it’s safe,” explains Elizabeth Murray, M.D., a pediatric emergency physician. “We don’t necessarily think of white noise as being loud, but some of those machines can be very loud.”
Recent studies have suggested that many white noise machines are, in fact, too loud. The loudest setting on many machines can exceed the 50-dB limit enforced in hospital nurseries. Some machines can be even louder, generating more than 85 dB at typical crib-mounted distances. That’s the limit at which OSHA requires hearing protection. That is also, not to put too fine a point on it, a seriously bad idea to put next to a child.
How to Do White Noise Right
- Turn white noise machines all the way down to start. The idea is to make it work at the lowest volume possible. Most machines can exceed the maximum decibel level recommended for hospital nurseries.
- Place the white noise machine near the crib, but not in it. Items in a crib can be very dangerous for children.
- Music isn’t white noise so don’t play it.
- Play with the sounds a bit. Every baby reacts to different tones differently. Lower rhythmic sounds may be better.
The solution for parents isn’t necessarily to avoid these more powerful machines, but to be very aware of how loud they get and start out by testing the lowest setting to see if that works. It might not. The machine does have to be loud enough for the baby to hear it over their own crying. Still, in the long run, a few nights of interrupted sleep while establishing the minimum effective volume is a reasonable price to pay for future restfulness (and a kid that can still hear).
Another safety consideration is the kind of cover. Rail-mounted white noise machines hidden inside a stuffed animal can be cute, but may place them too close to the mattress to be safe. Generally, babies shouldn’t have anything in their crib in the first year other than a well-fitting mattress. Extraneous bedding and plush animals can be very dangerous for a child too young to roll away from danger. “Something on a shelf, near the crib, is fine,” says Murray. “Just something simple.”
Simple may be the most effective. Sounds that are too dynamic or too entrancing – repeated lullabies that play on a loop, for example – can have the opposite of their intended effect, capturing the restless baby’s attention and rousing them to full wakefulness. Motion- or sound-activated models can also prematurely waken a baby who stirs or cries briefly before self-soothing. The whole point of effective sleep training is giving babies the chance to put themselves back to sleep, after all. Anything that short-circuits their self-sufficiency isn’t necessarily going to be helpful in the long run.
“I would never recommend it just because it might make a sleeping baby sleep longer,” cautions Murray. “I would only consider it if your baby is really having difficulty settling and difficulty sleeping. It doesn’t add anything to do it just because maybe it will be nice.”
It’s also important to keep some perspective. The fact is that nobody really sleeps through the night. As numerous fitness apps and sleep trackers have shown, even adults have periods of light rousing. The key to sleep training is to develop a healthy sleep ritual that helps kids put themselves to sleep. For the right kind of kid, white noise done right is a part of that, but if a child doesn’t need it, they simply don’t need it. It’s worth letting a baby self soothe themselves as much as possible in order to find the right path.