Is White Noise Bad for Babies?
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I love white noise! After all, white noise is a key element of my 5 S’s for soothing babies. Research shows that white noise can help 80% of infants fall asleep in just 5 minutes and it can increase sleep in colicky babies. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends white noise to improve a baby’s sleep. That’s because white noise helps turn on your baby’s innate calming reflex, which is their built-in “on button” for sleep. As babies get older, white noise becomes a learned sleep cue. But even with all the (well-deserved) hype, some parents are skeptical about using white noise to help their children sleep. Some even think that white noise is bad for babies. They may worry that their baby will become too reliant on white noise or that white noise may damage their baby’s hearing. But I’m here to tell you that these are white noise myths! Here, I set the record straight on white noise.
Does white noise damage a baby’s hearing?
Back in 2014, there were some alarming headlines circulating about the dangers of white noise, like: “White Noise Machines Could Hurt Babies’ Hearing,” “Sound Machines for Babies: Too Loud? Too Close?” “White Noise: Not the Right Noise.” All of this uproar was over a study in the journal Pediatrics about white noise. Here, researchers tested 14 white noise machines (marketed specifically for sleeping babies) by placing them a mere 12 inches from the “babies’ heads”—and cranking the sound up to max volume. (Instead of actual babies, this study used equipment to measure sound.) When researchers then measured how much sound reached the “babies,” they found that three sound machines exceed 85 decibels. (Eighty-five decibels is like a noisy restaurant or a wee bit louder than an alarm clock.)
The researchers warned that, if sound machines were played at 85 decibels (dB) for eight hours straight, the sound would exceed safety standards and might reach a level that could hurt a baby’s hearing. (The study itself did not examine hearing loss.) They advised parents to move their babies’ white noise machines as far away as possible, playing the machines at 50 decibels, and shutting off the sound after their baby falls asleep. That advice may seem logical, but I strongly believe it’s wrong...and even dangerous. Here’s why: By reducing infant crying and boosting a baby’s (and parent’s) sleep, white noise may prevent many of the terrible problems triggered by these stressors. But white noise only works if it is loud enough!
How loud should white noise be?
Let’s look at the researchers’ recommendation of playing white noise at 50 decibels. Fifty decibels is quieter than normal conversation, softer than background music, and about the same decibel count as a quiet refrigerator...and it offers absolutely no benefit for your baby’s sleep! Sound doesn’t even start improving sleep until it gets to 60 to 70 decibels. For some volume perspective, studies show that the sound inside the womb can reach over 90 decibels, so Baby is very used to that level of sound!
To help a calm baby sleep with white noise…
To help any baby get to sleep, I whole-heartedly recommend playing white noise at 60 to 70 decibels. I assure you that white noise can be safely played at that level all night…and it works! This is just enough white noise to activate a baby’s calming reflex, which is their inborn “on switch” for sleep. (That’s why white noise—aka Shushing—is an integral part of the 5 S’s for soothing babies.) A study in the journal Child & Family Behavior Therapy even found that white noise machines set at 75 decibels at bedtime—and used all night—improved sleep and reduced night-wakings in 1-year-olds with no ill effects. Plus, a 2022 report in the journal Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research concluded that white noise has time and again shown to help infants and toddlers fall asleep and reduce the number of times they wake up in the night. Over time, there were no side effects worth mentioning.
To help an upset baby with white noise…
While 60 to 70 decibels is great for keeping calm babies calm, when your baby is upset, you’ll want to increase the white noise volume to match the intensity of your little one’s wailing—which can reach 100 decibels or more! A crying baby requires a more vigorous take on the 5 S’s for soothing babies in order to flip on the calming reflex, which is a baby’s “off switch” for crying and “on switch” for sleep. (Think about it like this: Playing loud white noise for minutes, not hours, is a lot less traumatic to your baby’s ears than listening to their own crying!) Then, once your baby has fallen asleep, slowly reduce the white noise intensity to 60 to 70 decibels. Again, that’s a totally safe level sound that can be played all night long. (Learn more about how to calm a very fussy baby.)
Are white noise machines safe for babies?
The answer again, is YES, white noise machines are safe for babies. If you keep white noise at a safe level and at a safe distance from your baby’s ears, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Of course, it should go without saying that you not blast your white noise machine at max volume right next to your little one’s head all night long. But if your baby is crying, you can safely boost the volume of your white noise machine for several minutes to match the level of your baby’s cries. After your baby drifts back to sleep—and has been asleep for 5 or 10 minutes—reduce the white noise volume back down to the level of a soft shower. (SNOO does this automatically.)
What’s a safe white noise machine for Baby?
If you're in the market for a white noise machine that offers noise at a safe level, look no further than SNOObear and SNOObie. I designed both white noise machines with sleep and safety top of mind. For example, I made sure that SNOObie's volume automatically decreases when off its charging dock to make extra sure it’s never too loud for little ears. And, of course, my award-winning smart bassinet SNOO plays white noise throughout all naps and night sleeps. SNOO also temporarily ups the intensity of the white noise if your baby is upset…then gradually reduces the sound to a lower level when Baby calms, which takes all the guesswork out of adjusting decibels for Baby. All levels of SNOO sound were designed with a Baby's ears in mind.
Is SNOO safe for babies’ hearing?
Yes! SNOO’s white noise is perfectly safe for babies’ little ears! The sound on SNOO’s blue level is 68 to 70 decibels and the sound on the orange level—when the baby is crying hard—is ~86 decibels, which is still significantly less intense than a baby’s own cries that can reach or exceed 100 decibels. Remember, SNOO only gets louder when your baby fusses, and it quickly reduces as your baby calms. So, SNOO is only ever at max volume for approximately 4 minutes. Plus, we have different volume level options in our app, so if you would like to set the volume to the lowest level, you can.
Common White Noise Mistakes
To use white noise safely—and most effectively—avoid these common white noise mistakes…
White Noise Mistake #1: Skipping White Noise Because Baby Sleeps So Well
White noise can make good sleep better! As babies pass through infancy, white noise helps them sleep through outside distractions, such as a too-loud TV and inside distractions, such as mild teething pain. Within weeks of using white noise, your little one will connect white noise with the pleasure of sleep. Oh yeah, I recognize that sound...now I’ll have a nice little snooze.
White Noise Mistake #2: Playing White Noise on a Constant Loop
Hearing the normal hum of home for many hours a day helps children master the nuances of all the interesting sounds around them, such as speech, music, and so forth. That means, turn on white noise during your child’s bedtime routine—and throughout their sleep—but turn it off during the rest of the day.
White Noise Mistake #3: Buying the Wrong Sound Machine
While many so-called white noise machines and apps tout 20+ sounds, just a few of their sounds are correctly engineered white noise that offer magical womb-like shushing that works to lull babies to dreamland. (Chirping birds, jungle sounds, crashing waves, and gentle lullabies are not white noise!) The only white noise that helps with sleep is low pitch, droning, and hypnotic, like the monotonous rumble of cars and planes or the continuous drone of rain on the roof. For the real deal, turn to white noise that has been specifically designed to soothe fussiness and boost sleep, like the sounds in SNOObie. And for responsive white noise, consider SNOO, which automatically and continuously plays white noise that gradually increases in response to your baby’s cries. And my SNOObear plays familiar SNOO white noise for 30 or 60 minutes, but then continues to “pay attention” to your baby for an additional three hours…and “wakes up” and plays more soothing white noise to help your little one settle back down if it “hears” your tot start fussing again.
White Noise Mistake #4: Assuming White Noise is a “Sleep Crutch”
There’s no need to avoid white noise out of a fear that your baby might become too reliant on the sound for sleep! For years, parents can continue to use white noise with their children—and themselves—to boost sleep, and there’s zero harm in it. Think of white noise as just another healthy sleep tool—like your comfy pillow and warm blanket—that helps get you to dreamland. That said, it’s easy to wean your little one from white noise whenever you want. (Though not necessary!) Simply lower the sound gradually, bit by bit, over a week or two until it’s finally off.
White Noise Mistake #5: Ditching White Noise in the Toddler Years
Proper white noise (low-pitch, droning, and hypnotic) creates a kind of “blanket of sound” that masks sudden shifts in sound consistency (dog barking, loud truck passing by) that can often wake toddlers (and adults) up. Consider my cute-as-can-be SNOObie for the job! It's a sleep-enhancing white noise machine, a nightlight, an OK-to-wake sleep trainer, and more.
Final Thoughts on White Noise Safety
White noise is an amazing tool to help your baby sleep. Please don’t be afraid to use it! Simply remember: When your baby cries, boost the sound for several minutes to the level of her cries. After your little one has been asleep for 5 to 10 minutes, reduce the sound to the level of a soft shower, around 65 decibels. (Learn more about the benefits of white noise.)
Shop our pediatrician-designed white noise:
- SNOObear 3-in-1 White Noise Lovey
- SNOObie All-in-One Smart Soother
- Soothing White Noise Sleep Sounds (MP3)
- SNOO Smart Sleeper with White Noise and Gentle Rocking
More info on white noise benefits…
- What to Look for in a White Noise Machine
- How White Noise Helps the Whole Family Sleep Better
- White Noise Explained: Examples of White Noise
- Newborn Baby White Noise Benefits
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.