Is Your Sound Machine Good or Bad for Your Baby?
Sound machines have become a baby registry staple over the years because, well, when babies sleep, parents sleep. It seems that long before we learn about sleep routines and regressions, we parents have been taught that a good night’s sleep is crucial for the whole house and we’ll do anything to make sleep happen at home.
Sleep is crucial, of course, but it’s about a lot more than just getting rest. “There are a variety of vital neurobiological processes that occur during sleep, all of which are critical to an infant’s development and health,” says Dr. April Benasich is Co-Founder and Chief Scientist at RAPTbaby, a company founded to translate neuroscience into nursery products that enhance cognitive brain development of all young children.
“Many parents may not realize that while babies are sleeping, part of their brains are listening for important auditory cues that help build the neural connections that will be used to process language,” says Dr. Benasich, who’s research shows that the non-speech acoustic discriminations in early infancy is highly predictive of later language development.
In other words, the types of sounds you play for your sleeping child matter. We asked Dr. Benasich to explain.
Why is sleep so crucial for babies?
“Sleep is a very busy time for the young brain,” says Dr. Benasich. During sleep, a baby’s body releases growth hormones that support physical growth and maturation and strengthen the immune system.
Sleep is also vital to brain development since it is “during sleep that the brain shapes itself in response to experiences,” says Dr. Benasich. “Babies are “learning” from those experiences and developing the systems that will drive cognitive, emotional, and motor skill development and function across life.”
What exactly is happening in a baby’s brain while they sleep?
“Babies are born with nearly all the neurons they will ever need,” says Dr. Benasich, “but in the first years of life their brains are working hard to create billions of connections among these neurons–most of which are formed during sleep.”
These connections, she explains, allows babies to perform the processes required in life, from basic ones like hearing and seeing to higher order processes like language processing and reasoning. “Sleep is a very busy time for the young brain,” she says.
How does sound impact a baby’s development during sleep?
“During sleep the baby’s brain continues to be receptive and attentive to auditory stimuli, such as the acoustic cues that help it identify basic language sounds and build the connections for language networks to process those sounds efficiently,” says Dr. Benasich. “By exposing your baby to an acoustically supportive environment during sleep, you’re positively influencing their language development and cognitive abilities.”
Do sound machines create an ‘accoustically supportive environment?’
Sound machines that contain small variations or acoustic cues support the development and maintenance of baby’s language networks, according to Dr. Benasich. Creating a supportive auditory environment is the intention behind RAPTbaby Smarter Sleep, which she says integrates beneficial acoustics into background tracks composed to promote brain waves conducive to sleep. “Each one of our Smarter Sleep soundtracks was composed to support sleep while giving the active parts of an infant’s sleeping brain the stimuli it needs to develop language networks,” Dr. Benasich says.
Are sound machines essential?
Essential? No. Effective? Yes. “Soundtracks with slower rhythms, lower frequencies and layered mixes of sounds can help induce the alpha and delta waves that encourage sleep and allow deep sleep to occur,” says Dr. Benasich. “While many parents like using sound machines to mask background noise that may wake a child, they’re not necessary to use.”
Does white noise offer the same benefits?
Dr. Benasich actually advises parents to avoid white noise machines, which mask sounds. She says, “White noise contains frequencies at all the same intensity, but sound variation at night is critical to language development.” Instead, she suggests sound machines that play nature sounds or music that has some variation.
About Dr. April Benasich
Dr. Benasich is the Co-Founder and Chief Scientist for RAPT Ventures, Inc. (RVI), a company founded to translate neuroscience into products that consumers can use to enhance brain development and performance for themselves and the people they love. With dual PhDs from NYU in Experimental/Cognitive Neuroscience and Clinical Psychology, and as the Elizabeth H. Solomon Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (the country’s first such endowed chair) and Director of the Infancy Studies Laboratory at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University Newark, April was the first to show that the ability to perform non-speech acoustic discriminations in early infancy is highly predictive of later language development. Recognizing that improving that ability could move young children to a better learning track informed much of her groundbreaking research on the impact of rapid auditory processing, brain plasticity and sleep on brain development and performance and resulted in 13 patents and 70+ peer-reviewed papers supporting the scientific innovations incorporated in RVI products.