By Greg Stokes (u0381020)
Ah, sleep. The often just out of reach prize for parents of infants. Luckily, you can buy a white noise machine that will soothe and calm your baby right to sleep, allowing you to catch a few zzzz’s yourself. The SoundBub is one of the most highly rated white noise machines on Amazon.com today (https://www.amazon.com/SoundBub-Portable-Bluetooth-Speaker-Soother/dp/B01HP06EFW/ref=sr_1_16_a_it?ie=UTF8&qid=1487301630&sr=8-16&keywords=white%2Bnoise%2Bmachine%2Bbaby&th=1), though you can find a hundred similar devices. Its soft, adorable frame (available in owl, bear, and bunny form) is made out of chew-safe materials, allowing you to put the machine right in your baby’s crib, which will be sure to blocksout any of dad’s snoring. It is also Bluetooth enabled, allowing parents the freedom to control the device from afar. While marketed as an “infant soother”, white noise machines are considered appropriate for all children.
As my wife and I prepare to travel to Europe later this year, articles that talk about how to travel internationally with kids have caught my eye. One of the recommendations I have seen several times is to travel with a white noise machine, because it brings the comfort of home with you and blocks out any unusual noise from your foreign surroundings, helping kids maintain a healthy sleeping schedule. This advice surprised me, as neither my wife nor I have ever used a white noise machine and know little about them. We were lucky, I guess, to both have fathers who considered themselves master story tellers. Our bedtime routines were similar in the sense that our fathers would tell us a story “from their mouth”. Stories “from their mouth” are different from reading a book, as our fathers would simply make-up a narrative on the spot, usually with us and our siblings as the main characters. This seems much simpler to me than having to remember to pack another item for traveling!
This led me to do some research regarding the effect of white noise machines on infant development, specifically with the importance of language exposure in mind. Compared to the stories I was raised with, I hypothesized that a white noise machine would have some negative effects on brain development.
Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss biologist and philosopher, organized the cognitive development of infants into six different stages (Bornstein, 2014). Stage one (birth to one month) shows us that babies are not really learning all that much from their environment yet, but they do discover that hearing can be a way to act on the world (Piaget calls this a scheme) (Bornstein, 2014). In stage two (one to four months), babies start to coordinate their different schemes. An example of this coordination is when a baby turns its head in response to a source of sound; this helps with the cognitive development of looking and hearing simultaneously (Bornstein, 2014). Hearing is obviously an important part of cognitive development, which to me implies that the sounds we introduce into an infant’s environment will have some effect on their cognitive development.
The research I found on white noise machines supported my hypothesis, to some degree. Nina Kraus, a research biologist at Northwestern University, has spent most of her career trying to understand how sound affects the brain. Her research has found that the future reading ability of a child as young as three can be predicted based on their brain’s response to different sounds (Flanagan, 2016). Her research also further supports the finding that the actual number of words an infant hears matters and can have a significant influence on their learning abilities (Hart, 2013). This becomes a particular issue for infants growing up in poverty, which I learned can hear up to 30 million fewer words than their peers in higher socioeconomic homes (Hart, 2013). Infants raised in poverty are also at risk for living in an environment that is characterized by chronic background noise (Skoe, 2013). Chronic background noise is associated with several auditory and learning problems such as reducing the brain’s sensitivity to sound and slowing auditory growth (Skoe, 2016).
White noise machines, specifically, can have a negative effect on a developing brain for more than just these reasons. These devices, which emit “meaningless sound,” as Kraus put it, can interfere with how the brain develops sound-processing circuitry (Flanagan, 2016). According to Kraus (Flanagan, 2016):
“A child’s brain is always seeking meaning…if you give them meaningless sound, it may have a disruptive effect on their brain organization.”
As I see it, white noise machines have a few potential negative effects on the cognitive development of infants. One, because they emit what Kraus calls a “meaningless sound”, the auditory processing parts of an infant’s brain is affected. Two, white noise machines can contribute to chronic background noise, which reduces the brain’s sensitivity to sound and auditory growth. Three, and arguably the most important thing to consider, is that white noise machines do not provide language exposure and takes away the opportunity for parents to provide this additional exposure through storytelling and reading out loud.
However, I cannot conclude that any product that helps with the sleep of both infants and their parents is all negative. Sleep, we know, is essential for cognitive health and overall well-being. So I would recommend to parents who have an infant that is not sleeping well to try a white noise machine, but only as a last attempt.
Bornstein, M.H., Arterberry, M.E., & Lamb, M.E. (2014). Development in Infancy. New York: Psychology Press.
Flanagan, L. (2016). What Types of Sound Experiences Enable Children to Learn Best? Mindshift – KQED News. Retrieved from: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/11/28/what-types-of-sound-experiences-enable-children-to-learn-best/
Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (2003). The Early Catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator.
Skoe, E., Krizman, J., & Kraus, N. (2013). The Impoverished Brain: Disparities in Maternal Education Affect the Neural Response to Sound. Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (44): 17221-17231.