White noise – yes or no?

By Angela Wilson
Certified child sleep consultant, MA Natural Sciences Cambridge University and co-founder of Baby Smiles Club 

There’s a lot of people in the world of baby sleep who swear by white noise. And there’s huge numbers of adults who’ve downloaded white noise apps, or bought white noise machines, in the hope of getting a better night’s sleep for themselves too. 

The rationale is that white noise evens out background noise by producing a constant soothing noise, said to induce sleep. For babies, the thinking is that it’s noisy for a baby in the womb (the sound of blood rushing through the placenta is said to be louder than a vacuum cleaner!), and white noise replicates this environment. 

We’ve always been more neutral in relation to white noise – on the basis that we believe in keeping things simple, and in creating a sleep environment that will be most helpful for babies in the long run. We don’t believe in using gadgets or props for sleep generally – they often don’t help and can sometimes even be dangerous. 

In September 2020, new research was published that concluded that white noise as a sleep aid may actually do more harm than good. The research concludes that there is little evidence that white noise actually works, and there could even be downsides. 

What does the latest research say? 

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine carried out a review of existing scientific research on white noise, including research involving infants and children. The research (published in September 2020) concluded that “the quality of evidence for continuous noise improving sleep was very low”, contradicting its widespread use, and that it could actually “negatively affect sleep and hearing”. 

One of the scientists carrying out the research was concerned about the potential downsides of not allowing the auditory system to switch off. “Whenever we’re exposed to sounds and noise, the inner ear is translating that into nerve signals that are then interpreted by the brain...You probably want to have a period where the auditory system can wind down, regenerate and prepare for the next wake period”. 

Another scientist said “Any acoustic stimulus being continuous or not has the potential to interrupt the sleep process”. 

The research concluded that additional research was needed before promoting continuous noise as a sleep aid. 

How does this sit with the current thinking? 

There’s no official guidance (or at least none that we’re aware of) on the use of white noise for baby sleep. The NHS in the UK says “don’t worry about keeping the house silent while they sleep. It’s good to get your baby used to sleeping through a certain amount of noise”, but that’s as far as it goes. 

A study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 concluded that Infant Sleep Machines that make white noise “are capable of producing output sound pressure levels that may be damaging to infant hearing and auditory development”. 

The researchers tested 14 machines and found that all of them exceeded recommended noise limits. The study concluded that “exposure to these devices may place infants at risk of developing noise induced hearing loss and maldevelopment of the auditory system”. 

They said that safe use of an Infant Sleep Machine may be possible but policy recommendations for their use were needed. They recommended that an Infant Sleep Machine: 1) be placed as far away as possible from the infant and never in the crib or on a crib rail; 2) be played at a low volume; and 3) be operated for a short duration of time.

What’s our take? 

Our take is that there are other ways to help babies sleep that don’t involve white noise, and that you should think carefully if you’re considering using white noise for your baby. Please feel free to reach out to us if you’d like to discuss it. 

Our ‘Seven Pillars of Sleep’ article sets out the key things we think a baby needs for good sleep. And our Baby Sleep Program can help your baby get that sleep!

Our Baby Sleep Program is a modern, gentle and caring approach to baby sleep. It's based on the most up-to-date science about how babies sleep, and created with kindness and empathy. Our approach is to help a baby to get the best sleep that they can, whilst strengthening the parent-baby bond. 

Find out more about our Baby Sleep Program