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The Science of Sound and Sleep

Using soft and soothing sounds to put infants and children to sleep is as old as motherhood itself. The earliest recorded lullaby is 4,000 years old and written on Sumerian clay tablets. The practice of mothers singing to their children at bedtime certainly goes back much further and is common to almost all cultures. “Lullabies belong to the instinctive nature of motherhood,” says archeomusicologist Richard Dumbrill.

Science is finally catching up to this ancient practice. In recent years, researchers have taken a closer look at the power of music to not only improve sleep for children of all ages but also to improve health and well-being on a number of measures. At the very youngest age, neonatal infants were found in several studies to positively respond to music by sleeping longer, breathing better, eating better, and gaining more weight., In one particularly rigorous and well-publicized study, researchers looked at infants in 11 neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) over two and a half years, and studied the differences between those who were exposed to music and those who were not. They found that infants exposed to music had significantly better feeding, behavioral signs, and breathing. 

Some researchers hypothesize that the rhythm of lullabies helps infants regulate their own natural, biological rhythms. In his book on the therapeutic power of music, Ted Gioia notes how human physiology is composed of a variety of rhythms from heartbeats and brain waves, to sleep cycles and hormonal ebbs and flows. The childhood development researcher Sally Goddard Blythe argues that most lullabies have the same rhythm—triple metre or 6/8 time—and so mimic the natural rhythmic rocking of the mother’s womb.1 

Large studies of parental sleep practices have shown that a significant majority of parents use some sort of sound to help their children go to sleep. While many parents use music, sleep scientists say that simple white noise can be just as effective. In one authoritative review of the science, researchers recommend white noise to help block out sharp changes in sound and create a peaceful sleep environment. Another smaller study showed that white noise can help young children go to sleep faster and stay asleep longer even in non-controlled environments.  In controlled environments like NICUs, researchers have shown that neonates fall asleep three times faster with white noise than without.

Some researchers believe that white noise works best because of its hypnotic qualities, while others argue that white noise moderates sound changes in the child’s environment. A 2005 study looked at how white noise helps neonates sleep in a NICU and found that it is not loud sounds that necessarily wake babies, but it is the difference in sound levels between the background noise and loud “peak” noise. White noise helps babies sleep, the researchers argue, by  “reducing the difference between background noise and peak noise.” Regardless of how white noise works, the available evidence strongly suggests that it can be a safe and effective sleep aid for young children. 

Cloud b sound products offer a variety of options for parents to choose the right sleep sounds for their baby. Our products offer both lullaby music and white noise (such as waterfalls, ocean waves, and soothing winds), have adjustable volume controls, and have sleep timers that turn off sounds after a set amount of time. These features follow the most rigorous and up-to-date findings of sleep researchers that suggest that sounds should be 

  • adjusted to the lowest level that can still moderate outside noise, 
  • played primarily during the time when babies and children are falling asleep, ,
  • customized for each child’s individual preference.7,13

These features allow parents to choose the right sleep sound experience for their baby while also providing peace of mind that the sounds will never be too loud or continue for too long.

1. Perry, N. (2013, January 13). The universal language of lullabies. BBC New Magazine. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from the www.bbc.com database, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21035103

2. Standley, J.M. (2002). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of music therapy for premature infants. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 17(2), 107-113.

3. Standley, J.M. (2012). Music therapy research in the NICU: An updated meta-analysis. Neonatal Network: The Journal of Neonatal Nursing, 31(5), 311-316.

4. Loewy, J. et al. (2013). The effects of music therapy on vital signs, feeding, and sleep in premature infants. Pediatrics, 131(5), 902-918.

5. Gioia, T. (2006). Healing songs. Durham: Duke University Press.   

6. National Sleep Foundation. 2014 Sleep In America Poll. Washington, D.C.: National Sleep Foundation, 2006.

7. Meltzer, L. J. (2010). Clinical management of behavioral insomnia of childhood: Treatment of bedtime problems and night wakings in young children. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 8(3), 172–189.

8. Forquer, L. M. & Johnson, C. M. (2005). Continuous white noise to reduce resistance going to sleep and night wakings in toddlers. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 27(2), 1-10.

9. Spencer, J. A. et al. (1990). White noise and sleep induction. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 65(1), 135-137.

10. Stanchina, M. L. et al. (2005). The influence of white noise on sleep in subjects exposed to ICU noise. Sleep Medicine, 6(5), 423-428.

11. Hugh, S. C. et al. (2014). Infant sleep machines and hazardous sound pressure levels. Pediatrics, published online 3 March 2014

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/02/25/peds.2013-3617.

12. Standley, J. (2012). Music therapy research in the NICU: An updated meta-analysis. Neonatal Network: The Journal of Neonatal Nursing, 31(5), 311-316.

13. Sheldon, S. (2005). Principles and practice of pediatric sleep medicine. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier.

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