White noise at bedtime

Lara posted, “My husband and I have always put our son, who is 10 months, to sleep with white noise in the background. It went from the exhaust fan in the bathroom, to a humidifier and now a sound machine. We even take the sound machine with us when we travel for our baby to sleep with. My husband’s family all use fans to sleep with and some have a difficult time sleeping without one. I am concerned that our son will always need white noise in order to sleep if we continue to use the sound machine long into the future. What happens when he goes to sleepovers and there isn’t one there? Should we keep using it or let him learn to sleep without one?”

I’ve written before about the importance of good, fixed sleep associations as an important way to help kids sleep independently through the night. Junior will get used to cues from the environment to know when it’s time to go to sleep and stay asleep. These can be things like being held, a gentle rocking motion, being swaddled, or a dark room. The best sleep associations are those that do not depend on a parent being present. So a white noise machine, running all night, can be an excellent way to help a child learn to sleep solidly and independently.

I’m not too worried about a baby being too dependent on a device like this. They’re easy enough to use every night, and can run on batteries or A/C. They’re cheap, they’re harmless, and I can’t think of any reason not to bring one traveling. In fact, they’re especially good during travel, as the familiar sounds drown out new and foreign sounds that would otherwise keep a baby awake. If a child wants to continue to hear soothing white noise when older, what’s the harm?

If you really want to wean this later, it can be done: just turn down the volume, gradually, so over several weeks Junior will get used to less and less noise, then finally turn it off. But I wouldn’t worry about this kind of habit now. It’s safe, and will help everyone get a good night’s sleep.

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4 Comments on “White noise at bedtime”

  1. DrG Says:

    We have a family friend who used to play classical music for her son at bedtime when he was an infant and toddler. It worked as a good fixed sleep association but now that he is older he falls asleep during the second movement whenever they go to the symphony. Any studies showing persistent sleep associations imprinted from infancy that had undesired consequences later on? Are they resigned to skip orchestra and play bass guitar in a rock band?

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  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Hey Doc, thanks for stopping by!

    Don’t know of any studies, but I do know my dad, who adored classical music, would always fall asleep during the symphony or opera. This annoyed my mom to no end, but he claimed that this was the “best way” to enjoy the music.

    As far as bass guitar in a rock and roll band, heck, any talentless fool can do that! And sing, too!

    I’ve also heard of some individuals who develop fixed sleep associations with medical lectures, grand rounds, etc. Nonetheless, they seem to absorb the material. Fascinating.

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  3. Sarah Says:

    What is your take on the new study all over the news today about white noise possibly leading to hearing loss? We’ve used one for our son since he was born…he’s now 19 months and still sleeps with one. After this study, I’m nervous I’ve been damaging his hearing!

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  4. Dr. Roy Says:

    Sarah, I have that study in my “stack of things to blog about.” Bottom line: they measured sound output and found that some machines at max volume could make sound at a high decibel than recommended. That’s a far cry from showing that under typical usage these things are damaging children. How many parents have these at max volume right next to Junior’s ears? I’ll write more about it soon. Meanwhile, this blogger did a good job: http://www.troublesometots.com/pediatrics-study-white-noise/

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