Is it safe to use white noise to calm and sleep the baby?

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When we could not sleep, we tried with the noise of a dryer, the extractor of the kitchen or a television channel not tuned this noise is called white noise, and although it seems unlikely, many babies stop crying when they hear it.

Years later the recommendation to stop using it began to run because it was said that babies, upon hearing it, stopped receiving stimuli and their brain remained in a blocking situation; an alert situation that left them waiting to know what would happen next, not crying because they were afraid, and could affect their development.

Well, that is precisely what we are going to talk about today, trying to answer the question of the title: Is it safe to use white noise to calm and sleep the baby?

What is white noise and why does it work?

The white noise has the peculiarity of being a sound in which all the frequencies are at the same volume, without protruding any over the other. This means that when listening to a sufficient volume the rest of the surrounding sounds are annulled, and the person remains in a kind of sound isolation situation, hearing only the white noise.

When a baby who is crying listens to him, little by little he stops crying, he calms down, and in some cases he even falls asleep (especially if he cries because he wants to sleep and cannot find a way to sleep).

Now, why this happens is what is not clear at all. In the first investigations about this, about 30 years ago, the similarity between white noise and the sound that a baby can hear in the maternal womb was mentioned; with time it was said that no, that this sound isolation simply occurs and that the baby, in the absence of stimuli, relaxes . And finally it was said that it was this, but that the baby is really scared, it stays alert, in suspense, and that same stress causes it to end up falling asleep without being able to withstand that tension.

I have recommended it myself and then I have recommended avoiding it

As a nurse and father, I must confess that I used it more than once, at least with the oldest. Without finding a way to calm him down definitively, imprisoned in a spiral of tears that I did not know how to calm down, I lit the kitchen extractor on more than one occasion to see if he could do that, and on more than one occasion it worked, producing silence and getting to sleep.

But then I got an article from a magazine (it was not a scientific study), which I have not been able to find, that said what I tell in the second paragraph: it is better not to use it, it is dangerous, and it can cause problems of development in the babies.

Sure, reading something like that, what are you doing? Well, stop recommending it and tell mothers and fathers that although it seems to work, it is better not to do it for these reasons.

A recurring question …

Yesterday I saw a debate on Facebook between mothers, asking about the white noise, and they were more or less like me until now: some had tried it or used it with their children and they had no feeling that it was bad, and others had read somewhere (and they were not able to find it) that was not good.

Now it’s been a while since I read that article and simply because of that, because it’s been a while, and because of responsibility when giving recommendations, I thought that before answering I should check if there are studies that defend one or another theory, so that parents have the information and act accordingly.

What the scientific evidence says?

To talk about what science says about it I am going to talk about the studies that have been published more recently, because they are the most striking because they do not mention the possibility of generating stress in the baby:

In a study published in June 2017, they decided to compare two strategies to help calm baby’s cramps: rocking them or using white noise until they fell asleep. They took 40 babies 1 month old who had episodes of inconsolable crying and saw that the group of children who were calmed with white noise ended up crying less hours per day and sleeping more time at night. In the conclusions they said, simply, that white noise works better than rocking, and that it can be used with that intention.

Another study published in December 2016 made use of white noise as a distraction to reduce the pain of babies during vaccination. With 75 premature babies as a sample, they made two groups, in which one listened to white noise one minute before vaccination, until one minute after vaccination; in the other group the babies were vaccinated equally, but without white noise. They found that, when quantifying pain, 2.9% of children in the white noise group had severe pain, by 82.5% in the control group; and that 67.6% of the white noise group had moderate pain, by 17.5% in the control group. They concluded that soft noise is a good strategy, and they suggested that it is an interesting way of research to know how it works and in what cases it can be used.

In another study in December 2014 three strategies were tested during a painful procedure: the mother holding the baby in her arms, the mother holding the baby in her arms and hearing white noise, and the baby being in the crib and hearing White noise. They saw that the babies who cried least, and who least disturbed, were those of the last group: those who were in the crib and heard white noise while the painful intervention was being carried out, followed by those who were in their arms and heard white noise, and finally of those who were in their arms without hearing the white noise.

So, are they scared?

You may be thinking the following: “If a baby cries less in a cradle with white noise, it will be that the white noise really stresses them, scares them, and that is why they do not react”.

Well it is a possibility that I will not deny, but I have not been able to find evidence to support this claim, so following the studies I have reached one of the oldest, from January 1990, when it was believed that babies they calmed down because the noise resembled what they heard in the womb. In this study with 40 babies from 2 to 7 days of age, two groups of 20 were made, and while those in a group were given white noise to see how long they took to fall asleep, those in the other group were left in the cradle without doing anything.

80% of the children in the first group had already fallen asleep after the first 5 minutes, while only 25% of the other group had done so in this period of time. In addition, when monitoring the pulse of the babies they saw that at the time of exposing them to white noise the heart rate did not increase as would be expected if there was a stress response, but it decreased.

That is, we know that intense noises scare them, makes them secrete cortisol (stress hormone), increases their heart rate and puts them on alert; but white noise does not seem to produce that effect because children get carried away by that noise, close their eyes, the heart rate decreases and they fall asleep. It has even been used in NICUs (Neonatal Intensive Care Units) because it helps to mask the noise of pumps, bells and machines, getting babies to wake up less often and sleep more hours.

The rats did not help them develop correctly

And that’s why many people started saying it was dangerous. Some studies with rats and white noise have shown that there is worse brain development when rats are subjected to this sound. The most recent is from January 2017 and they observed that a two-hour daily exposure of white noise decreases the neuronal density of the medial geniculate body, which in Christian means that it affects how the rats focus their attention to hear different external stimuli.

And so?

Well I do not know if with all the aforementioned you have reached some conclusion, but just in case and in the absence of conclusive scientific evidence, the answer is no, I give you mine, trying to apply the common sense that I still have (which is not much anymore).

We know that white noise masks the sounds of the environment and leaves the baby in a situation of lack of auditory stimuli. This, which many people say is bad, does not seem to be in view of the behavior of babies and their pulse: the baby relaxes and falls asleep (my logic tells me that when a baby is stressed does not sleep, it does the opposite: cry, and cry more and more).

However, the fact that you leave the baby without stimuli can affect your ability to hear, hear and learn from the environment through your hearing, because in the time that is immersed in the white noise, he does not hear anything else. A baby exposed to soft noise too many hours a day would probably have serious problems understanding sounds, sounds, etc., because we would be doing it “artificially deaf”.

But we also know that some adults who have problems concentrating use it, precisely to abstract from everything else and be able to study or work without interruptions, and that some studies claim that it improves learning and helps to learn more words.

The use of white noise in hospital plants of heart patients is also recommended, because they manage to have a more peaceful and restful sleep.

That is to say, we know that it has the power to “tame wild beasts”, as if it were relaxing music (in fact, it is said that the noise of running water in a stream is a kind of white noise).

And we know that the parents who have used it, we have done it as a last resort, when we have the baby crying and we are both desperate, the baby and us.

Knowing all this, that the white noise is not eminently good, or eminently bad, between having a baby crying in your arms, and consequently stressed, without auditory stimuli because you only hear yourself crying, and a quiet baby by listening a few minutes white noise, I vote for the second without any doubt.

Different is that we used it without crying in between

Although many babies could sleep alone in a cradle with white noise, perhaps after crying, the ideal is to go to the root of the problem. If a baby is just crying, what he asks is not white noise; he is asking for food or safety in the form of arms and affection, or both (falling asleep to the breast as most breastfed babies do since the beginning of time). That is what most mothers and fathers do and that is usually enough to make them fall asleep. That is, first you have to take care of the child based on what he needs (eating ice cream can make me forget that I have problems, but the problems are still there and so many ice creams will end up destroying my health).

If we already do it and still cry because he is sleepy but cannot fall asleep, because he is upset about something, because he has what seems to be colic and / or because he is tired of his short but too strange life, because I cry for half an hour or an hour, sometimes even more, and the white noise, I would head for the second. Because you do not have any more solutions and because, I repeat, you are not giving it to a baby to eliminate environmental noise, but to eliminate from its ear its own cry.

It would be different if, when the child was calm, we would light it to sleep; or that while in his nap we would light it so he would not hear us talking, pick up the dishes, watch TV, etc.; or even that in the stillness of the night, we put it on so that they would not “hear the silence” (yes, many babies wake up at night because they prefer to have some noise – silence is very strange in nature). Then we would be robbing him of real stimuli from his surroundings without need, and we could affect the aforementioned neuronal development of the areas of listening and attention to auditory stimuli, and we would be hurting him.

The information about the white noise in your hands …

So with the data I have contributed and my conclusions, each mother and father can consider what is better and act accordingly. I only wish you never to see yourself in the position of using it, because that means that your baby does not reach that strange point in which even though you give everything you have, even your energy and your sleep, it cries.

And if you arrive, then just add one thing, very evident on the other side: patience, everything happens. There will come a day when you will sleep happily every night; I promise you.


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