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  • Writer's pictureMary Cantwell

Can a sound machine help babies sleep?

Updated: Jul 15

The sound machine is a tool that I recommend often (love me a sound machine!) to help our child on the sleep side with the quality of their sleep. We hear lots of chatter around sound machines and white noise, but did you know there are other sounds that work for sleep?

In this blog, we will chat through:

  • What is White, Pink and Brown Noise?

  • The benefits of sounds machines for sleep

  • Concerns (that I hear from families) about using a sound machine

  • How does a sound machine help sleep?

  • How to use a sound machine safely and effectively?

  • When do I stop using a sound machine?

  • Final thoughts on sound machines

What is White, Pink, and Brown Noise?

White noise (most often recommended) is a consistent sound that masks other environmental noises (think dog barking, lawn mower going off during nap, cars passing by, etc). It contains a blend of all audible frequencies equally, creating a steady hum that can sound like a fan, air conditioner, or static from a radio.

The alternative to white noise is pink or brown noise. These sounds also help soften and mask other environmental noises as well. Pink noise is all audible frequencies but with more power in the lower frequencies and less in the higher frequencies. The sound of pink noise sounds like consistent rain, wind, rivers or ocean waves. Brown noise is more power and deeper in the lower frequencies and none at the higher frequencies.  The sound of brown noise sounds like consistent low thunder, rushing river or a vacuum cleaner on.

All these sounds may be used for sleep. I would pick one, stick with it as it cues your child to sleep and is familiar sounds for sleep.

sound machine spectrum

Benefits of Sound Machines for Sleep

In utero our babies hear the hum of life outside (between 75-88 db-it’s noisy out here!) and once they arrive earthside it can be absolutely deafening silence when they are placed in a quiet room. In addition, sound machines can help with any abrupt sounds that may happen that can cause an arousal/awakening. Research shows that noise events induce arousals and awakenings at relatively low exposure levels, and independent of the noise source (air, road, and rail traffic, neighbors, church bells) and the environment (home, laboratory, hospital). A sound machine can help with our overall night consolidation by decreasing disruption from abrupt environmental noises.

How does a Sound Machine help sleep?

1. Promotes Longer Sleep Duration

Research has shown that it can decrease the amount of time to fall asleep, helps us spend more time in restorative sleep, and decrease the transition better between our transition between sleep cycles. This hits the sleep trifecta of falling asleep, quality of sleep, and transitioning through our cycles.

2. Helps baby fall asleep faster

White noise can also shorten the time it takes for babies and toddlers to fall asleep. This study shows that 80% of infants fell asleep within 5 minutes using white noise. By providing a consistent auditory backdrop, sound machines create a sleep-conducive environment, helping little ones transition to sleep cycles more easily.

3. Mimics the Womb Environment

For newborns, the outside world can be a cacophony of unfamiliar sounds. White noise mimics the constant whooshing sounds they heard in the womb, providing a familiar and comforting auditory environment. This can help soothe fussy babies and reduce crying, leading to improved sleep quality for both baby and parents.

4. Helps Establish Sleep Routines

Consistency is key when establishing sleep routines for babies and toddlers. Using a sound machine as part of a bedtime routine is a positive sleep association and signals to your child that it is time to sleep. Over time, the association between sound and sleep can help establish strong, healthy sleep hygiene and habits.

5. Reduces the Impact of Sudden Noises

Sudden, unexpected noises can easily wake a baby or toddler. We process stimuli as we are sleeping and the sound machines create a masking effect, reducing the likelihood that your child will be disturbed by noises such as a barking dog, slamming the door, or passing car.

Concerns (that I hear from families) about Sound Machines

1. Dependence on White Noise

One concern is that babies and toddlers may become dependent on a sound machine to fall asleep. If a child becomes accustomed to falling asleep with a sound machine, they may struggle to sleep in its absence, such as during travel or naps outside the home. To help with sleep outside the crib, add other positive sleep associations such as patting, shushing, or a lovey (for children over 1-year-old, sleep sack, shushing, patting, etc). Also, when you are home you can give them the optimal sleep environment and when they are on the go their nap may not be as long, but they have a filled-up sleep tank which will help us manage a tired toddler or baby a bit easier.

2. Potential Impact on Hearing

Some parents worry about the potential impact of a sound machine on their child's hearing. A study published in Pediatrics suggested that some white noise machines can produce sound levels that exceed recommended limits, posing a risk to infants' hearing. To avoid this, recommend practicing the AAP recommendations for infants: keep the volume at a safe level (below 50 dB), and place the machine at a safe distance from the child's crib (at least 7 feet away).

3. Quality of White Noise

Not all white noise is created equal. Some devices may produce harsh or grating sounds that can be more disruptive than soothing. It's important to choose a high-quality white noise machine that produces a gentle, consistent sound. My favorite is LectroFan!

How to Use A Sound Machine Safely and Effectively

1. Volume Control

Keep the volume of the white noise machine at a safe level. AAP recommends a maximum of 50 decibels, which is roughly the sound level of a quiet conversation.

2. Distance

Place the white noise machine at least 7 feet away from your baby's crib or bed to ensure the sound is dispersed evenly and not too loud for delicate ears.

3. Duration

Use the white noise only during sleep and shut it off when your child is done sleeping.

4. Consistency

Incorporate a sound machine as part of a consistent bedtime routine. This helps create a positive sleep association and can make the transition to sleep smoother.

5. High-Quality Machine

Invest in a high-quality sound machine. Do your research on machines that offer a variety of sound options and have good reviews regarding their sound quality and safety features.

When do I stop using a Sound Machine?

Honestly, you don’t have to! Research shows that a sound machine is an effective tool to use for restorative and consistent sleep all the way into adulthood (yours truly still uses one!). That being said, if you want to try weaning as your child gets older, you should start by bringing down the decibel levels gradually over time to see how they respond.  If they do well with the decreases, keep going until you no longer need it! If we notice sleep is disturbed as we decrease the decibel levels, they aren't ready yet and can try again later!

Final thoughts on Sound Machines

The evidence suggests that the benefits of using white noise for baby and toddler sleep generally outweigh the risks when used appropriately. Sound machines can promote longer sleep duration, reduce sleep onset time, mimic the womb environment, help establish sleep routines, and reduce the impact of sudden noises.

However, it's essential to use a sound machine safely to mitigate any potential concerns. By controlling the volume, ensuring the device is at a safe distance, and using a high-quality machine, parents can harness the benefits of a sound machine.

For establishing a solid sleep foundation, a sound machine can be a valuable tool in fostering a better sleep environment for our little ones. With anything with our child, use your judgment on what works for you and your family! Sound machines can contribute to healthier sleep patterns, providing much-needed rest for both children and their families!

Need a little more help with getting rest to your nest? Let's schedule a complimentary Discovery Call so that we can get more information on what is happening sleep wise and you can ask any questions you have. 

Sweet dreams!


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