When he was an infant, my 15-year-old son had a terrible time falling and staying asleep. The teeniest creak in the floor boards or closing the bathroom door too hard would have him awake and demanding I breastfeed him, even if he’d just eaten.
Then, when he was a month old, I was loading clothes into the washer with one arm and cradling my wailing son in the other (this was before I got wise and bought a carrier). As the water rushed into the machine, I realized suddenly that he had gone quiet. I looked down. He was asleep. Asleep! Rejoice! Praise the gods! Hallelujah!
I finished loading the washer and wandered off to complete another chore with one arm. He immediately woke up and started fussing. I walked back to the washer. He drifted back to sleep. I walked away again and … he woke up.
I had just discovered the miracle of white noise for getting a baby to sleep.
A Motherhood Miracle
I am not ashamed to say that that night I ran the vacuum in the room where my son slept. For the entire night. But my son slept — and so did I. That vacuum cleaner could have run until the motor died for all I cared. The next day, I went out and bought my first white noise machine.
When my daughter came along four years later, we started with a sound machine right away. I started sleeping with one too. I’m an extremely light sleeper, especially since becoming a mom, and sporadic noises like the AC kicking on or the dog scratching himself in the middle of the night will wake me up.
I’d read in various places that sleep experts advise not to put your baby to sleep with white noise. I read all of the reasons why not to use white noise, and honestly, I couldn’t make myself care. I was finally able to walk down the hallway like a regular bipedal human instead of arm-crawling on my elbows for fear I’d wake my infant with an errant floor creak. White noise “dependency” was the least of my concerns.
Indeed, the three of us can sleep just about anywhere. We’ve gone camping and slept in hotels and at the homes of family members, all without our beloved waterfall sound. No issues falling asleep or staying asleep. Admittedly, we all would choose to sleep with white noise if it was available. But it’s no big deal if it’s not. Still, are we damaging our ears or causing long-term harm without realizing it?
What Do The Experts Say?
Katherine Hall, a sleep psychologist and sleep coach, is on the side of avoiding using white noise to help you sleep. “If you are consistently using white noise to fall asleep,” she says, “over time, your brain will start to associate sleep with white noise which can cause you to be unable to sleep without it.” Hall also says there’s research that suggests that white noise can trigger the release of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” which can impact brain function, emotional regulation, and memory.
I read through some of these studies, and I found they’re often not talking about true white noise. Rather, they reference sporadic noise like “traffic noise,” “low frequency noise,” or “background noise.” What experts do agree on is that our auditory system is always open, and sound can definitely trigger sleep disruption as well as cortisol release.
But what if a static sound is used to block out intermittent sounds that we can’t silence but are disrupting our sleep? And can’t a person tell if they’re better-rested after using a white noise machine to block those sounds?
Patti Read, a certified pediatric sleep consultant and owner of Goldilocks Sleep Solutions, supports sleeping with a certain type of white noise. “White noise is peaceful, dull, and boring,” she says. “[It’s] monotonous and lulls you to sleep without overstimulating your brain with varying sounds, pitches, or words.”
Make Sure The Sound You’re Using Is Actually White Noise
The “monotonous” quality of the sound is key here, and the advice to avoid “white noise” that is actually intermittent background noise aligns with the studies referenced by Hall. “Lullabies can be used in a bedtime routine, prior to falling asleep,” Read says, “but should not be played as a child is trying to fall asleep, nor should they be played continuously through the night.” And as long as you keep the volume down to about 65 decibels, she says, white noise is both safe and beneficial.
Emily Lau, a certified sleep consultant, agrees. “White noise not only blocks out noises that can disrupt sleep,” she tells Scary Mommy, “but it’s also what is known as a positive sleep association — meaning that it becomes a signal that lets your body know it’s time for sleep.”
Lau adds that it’s important to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to keep the sound machine at a low volume and at least six feet from your child’s head. Though she’s not concerned about dependency. Even if one develops, she points out, today’s sound machines are easy to take with you wherever you go. This is true — I once used a white noise app on my phone so I could sleep in a hotel room that was next door to a noisy stairwell.
Lau recommends to all of her clients to use white noise in their little ones’ rooms, because it helps create an auditory environment that promotes sleep. “Studies have shown that individuals who sleep with white noise fall asleep more quickly, get more sleep, and experience a higher quality of sleep than those who sleep without white noise,” she says.
So, yeah. My kids and I can sleep without a white noise machine — but we don’t want to. And, according to science, we don’t have to.
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