What Sound is Most Effective for Settling Babies?

If you’re the parent of an unsettled baby, chances are you’ve already taken to Google and discovered a whole range of products that claim to be the most effective sound to help settle your baby – so how do you figure out what sound works best?

The good news is that you’re on the right track to find something that can help.  Various studies have shown that continuous noise quiets infants.  The reason for this is that the inside of a mother’s body is actually quite a noisy place.  There are the rumbles of the digestive system, the sound of her heartbeat, and the swooshing of blood through her veins.  So newborn babies are used to hearing continuous recurring noise.  Silence is actually a strange thing for them, so by supplying some continuous sound you’re re-creating a more familiar environment for your little one.

On the basis of trying to recreate a sound that is most similar to the inside of a mother’s body, there are a number of experts that are strong advocates of “white noise” – strong static sounds (with or without a heartbeat added).  To me this has a degree of inherent sense to it, if you accept the basic premise that you’re trying to recreate similar sounds to a baby’s experience before birth.  It has been suggested that low and rumbly white noise works better, on the theory that before they are born a baby’s ears are full of amniotic fluid, which changes the sound.  This is consistent with the reports from lots of mums that their babies sleep better with the sound of the vacuum cleaner or the tumble dryer in the background.

However, what is really interesting is a scientific study that found that heartbeats, metronome beats and lullabies were all just as effective as each other. 

So that tends to indicate is that it may not really matter what form of continuous noise you chose, as long as it is fairly simple and repetitive.  Perhaps babies are not quite as fussy as we might think!  To me that’s sensational news, because it means you’ve got room to choose what works for you, and to adapt if you find that your little one has a strong preference of their own. 

You’ll hear all sorts of anecdotes from other parents about their baby’s surprising choices in music for example, including a few bubs that have a taste for hard rock.  Interestingly to me, most of the stories I’ve heard involve songs with a strong beat or recurring sound.  For example, our son had a thing for the Glee version of “Don’t Stop Believin’”.  Personally the Journey version is my favourite, but Oli strongly disagreed and that song would work when nothing else would (to the raised eyebrows of my maternal and child health nurse).  Based on what I know now, I’d say it was the repetitive “doo, doo, doo, doo” of the a Capella version that appealed to him.

When you think about it from this angle, it also makes sense that traditional lullabies tend to be very simple and repetitive melodies.  So for the singers out there, you might need to hold off on your Les Miserables in favour of “Baa Baa Black Sheep”.  Famously on one long car trip when our little man was resisting sleep (and desperately in need of it) it took 126 rounds of Baa Baa Black Sheep to convince him to nod off.  My best friend therefore suggests picking something like “Old MacDonald” or “Wheels on the Bus” instead, because at least there’s a tiny bit of variation to help preserve the sanity of the singer. ;)

Bearing in mind that options that don’t depend on your own voice are critical to you getting sleep, here’s some of my favourites:

  • The Cloud B Sleep Sheep: Ridiculously cute and easy to use, I loved this one when our son was a newborn. With 4 different soothing sounds: heartbeat, ocean waves, rain and whale songs, my favourite part was that it has a sleep timer so you can choose whether that sound runs for 23 or 45 minutes. See: http://amzn.to/1DCfIVY
  • Get this… there is now a sound sensing version of the Sleep Sheep…  This means you don’t have to get up to turn it on when your little one stirs in the night, it turns on all by itself if it detects noise from your baby… (but doesn’t keep running all night for those that are worried about bubs becoming “addicted” to white noise).  I haven’t tried this one, so I’d really love to hear feedback from any parents that have, but at face value it sounds like a sleep deprived parent’s best friend! Check it out at: http://amzn.to/1rocfUo  
  • Music for Dreaming: A big favourite in our house (and still very much used by us today).  Music lovers will adore this one – it’s a collection of gorgeous classic lullabies played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, but the real value for parents comes from the thought that was put into the production of the album to make it helpful for sleep: there are no big gaps between the songs, there’s not too much variation between the loud and soft notes, and the songs are in similar keys so your little one can float easily and peacefully from one song to the next.  Here’s an iTunes link: http://bit.ly/YikdEj.

Have you found any other great settling sound options? I'd love to hear (and I'm sure there's a few weary parents out there that would also love to hear your tips).