Parents and caregivers frequently ask us at Red Nose about what are some safe settling techniques - and especially whether the use of white noise is ok for an infant to help them get to sleep.
What is white noise?
Firstly, what is ‘white noise’? The most user-friendly definition in this instance is ‘a constant background noise’ or ‘one that drowns out other sounds (1). This means that white noise can be anything from the gentle shushing of an infant through to quiet singing, using an app or device with calming sounds or just general household buzz.
For many decades there has been curiosity around whether white noise could be a helpful settling and sleep tool. A google search for ‘white noise device’ yields hundreds of millions of hits suggesting wide interest in this idea.
For parents keen to try anything to assist their baby to sleep, can white noise help? Does the research support this settling technique?
Researchers in 1975 recorded various maternal blood flow sounds with a data recorder (2). Almost 500 infants were recruited to this trial with 3 different maternal blood flow sound recordings compared to a metronome or nothing – with impact on settling within 60 seconds measured. Initially, intrauterine sound recordings were more effective than other blood flow recordings, however, were less impactful after 30 days – the authors concluded, after that time the infant is more well attuned to other stimuli. Whilst it is not practical to record intrauterine blood flow, it does highlight that the type of white noise can impact the infant and that it may be worth trialling a few sounds before finding the more impactful for your infant.
Fast forward 15 years to 1991, where researchers used a domestically available white noise device on 20 infants aged between 2 and 7 days old (3). Researchers found that the infants exposed to the white noise were more likely to fall asleep quickly (within 2 minutes). Infants who did not settle, did settle after a feed. This highlights that, even with white noise, an infant is unlikely to fall asleep if they are still hungry or will likely still wake for a feed if the white noise continues overnight.
A 2017 intervention study explored the use of white noise for infants with colic – comparing swinging (repetitive and rhythmical) with white noise on forty, one-month old infants. This was a crossover trial where all 40 infants were exposed to each intervention for one week with primary outcomes being the number and duration of crying episodes. The study reported a statistically significant decrease in the number and duration of crying episodes in the week when white noise was played While we should interpret these results with caution, given the small sample size, the findings provide some additional evidence to support the consideration of the use of white noise. (5).
More recent research in 2021 explored using white noise in a clinical setting (4). Researchers conducted a trial with 103 infants in humidicribs in a neonatal intensive care unit who were medically stable. They compared outcomes among three groups, and found that there was no impact of mother’s voice or white noise on either sleep quality, cortisol levels or heart rate. It should be noted that they did not measure the impact on settling as the study infants were in humidicribs.
What does all this mean for parents?
Red Nose does not endorse specific types of settling techniques. Our review of the limited evidence, however, suggests that there may be a benefit for some babies, and that there are no known risks in trying this approach (especially low decibel background noises). Your baby is unique and may respond to certain sounds better than others – or they may also find it annoying and not settle with it! However, overall, the research suggests a ‘no harm in trying’ approach. Whether you use a specific white noise device, or app, or other sound – try and decide with an open mind.
A note of caution on using white noise
Any measures taken to assist an infant to sleep can potentially mean your baby becomes reliant on this measure and could find it difficult to settle without it. Before you initiate any settling habits such as white noise, consider how practical in the long term or if it can be replicated each night should your baby need that.
2. Murooka H, Araki T, Sasaki T, Iwasa Y, Nakamura M, Suda N. Induction of rest and sleep on the neonates by the rhythm of the maternal blood flow. 日本医科大学雑誌. 1975;42(3):245-7.
3. Spencer JA, Moran DJ, Lee A, Talbert D. White noise and sleep induction. Arch Dis Child. 1990;65(1):135-7.
4. Liao J, Liu G, Xie N, Wang S, Wu T, Lin Y, et al. Mothers’ voices and white noise on premature infants’ physiological reactions in a neonatal intensive care unit: A multi-arm randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Nursing Studies. 2021;119:103934.
5. Sezici E, Yigit D. Comparison between swinging and playing of white noise among colicky babies: A paired randomised controlled trial. Journal of clinical nursing. 2017;27.
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Last modified: 4/7/23