The Wonders of White Noise

Why It Helps Your Baby Sleep Better

Baby sleeping on a blue comforter

Annie Engel/Getty Images.

Babies like white noise. They’re used to it. Before making his grand debut, your baby spent his days and nights awash in the reassuring hum of human life. Your beating heart, the sound of the blood rushing around your body, the rhythmic in and out of your every breath created a comforting cacophony somewhat akin to the roar of a vacuum. (That’s as many as 80 to 90 decibels!)

Once born, your little one suddenly found himself in a disconcerting world of hushed tones and measured steps. Although designed for his comfort, this carefully guarded silence leaves him feeling detached and utterly isolated. No wonder your baby can’t sleep.

Why White Noise Helps Baby Sleep

White-noise machines create a comfortable, womb-like environment that calms anxious infants, encouraging them to stop crying and fall asleep faster. White-noise machines also help babies stay asleep longer. It works like magic, but the trick is easily explained.

Ever wonder why your baby seems to sleep for only 20 minutes at a time? As your little dreamer snoozes, he cycles in and out of deep sleep, experiencing brief periods of what’s called, “sleep arousal” about every 20 minutes or so. Babies wake easily during these periods of light sleep and quickly become anxious. Naptime is all too often over.

White noise silences this built-in, 20-minute alarm clock by drowning out doorbells, rambunctious siblings and other potential disturbances during vulnerable phases on sleep. Should baby begin to stir naturally, the calming drone of the white-noise machine provides comfort, encouraging your still-sleepy baby to sink back into a deep sleep.

Buying Tips

Wondering how you can get your hands on one of these miraculous machines? White-noise machines are available online and in most stores, but if you’re working with a limited budget, there’s no need to spring for a pricy, purpose-built sleep aid. White noise is easy to produce at home. Have an old AM/FM radio? Find some quality static, and turn it up! Fans also produce soothing sounds and have the added benefit of reducing your little one’s risk of SIDS. You can also pick up a free, white noise-generating app for your smartphone—a great, on-the-go option.

If you do choose to purchase something, keep it simple. According to Dr. Harvey Karp, author of “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” harsh, “whooshing” sounds work much better than the sound of a heartbeat or soft rain. Designer soundscapes often featuring crescendos, animal noises, and other distracting elements and should be avoided.

Another potential pitfall: Battery-operated machines or machines that only work on a timer. Most babies will wake the second their machine stops working, so choose a model you can leave on all night if necessary.

Using Your Machine

Now that you’ve settled on the right machine, you’re probably wondering how best to use it. What volume works best? How loud is too loud?

The answer depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you have an inconsolable infant on your hands, you’ll need to turn the volume up. According to Dr. Karp, white noise needs to meet or exceed the noise level of your baby’s crying to be effective. Once your little one has calmed down, adjust the volume to the level of a soft shower. If it seems uncomfortably loud to you, feel free to turn it down. Your little one may be uncomfortable also. 

Looking for more ways to help your baby catch some Zs? Try creating a sleep-centered nursery space.

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