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How sounds can affect your baby's development

December 27, 2016

As a music therapist, my job is to find ways to use music to help patients as they face medical challenges. I work alongside the medical team to help patients meet health-related goals and enhance their wellness, and I tailor specific music interventions to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of these patients. I often help patients manage pain and anxiety, create opportunities for creative emotional expression, teach positive coping skills, and help infants reach important developmental milestones.

For this blog post, I’d like to focus on infants and how sound affects them. One of the ways I help take care of babies is making sure they are exposed to the right kinds of sounds that will help them in their healing and development.

A baby’s surroundings play a critical role in their development. Whether the infant is premature, full-term, or a medically fragile newborn, it is important to carefully consider what is happening around them. Environmental factors often influence brain development at the very beginning of gestation, and the human cochlea (an organ in the ear that helps the brain detect sound) completes its development at 24 weeks gestational age. The soundscape (sounds present in a particular place) should be given special attention when evaluating the environment of an infant. When considering a soundscape it is important to ask:

 How much of the sound that we hear is noise?

When I talk about “sound” I am talking about everything we hear, but the word “noise” is different. When I talk about noise, I mean any sound that is unpleasant or undesirable to the listener. The exposure of continuous noise for newborn infants has been linked to hearing loss, and sudden loud noise exposure for infants has been linked to hypoxemia (an abnormally low concentration of oxygen in the blood). Luckily, caregivers who are diligent monitors of an infant’s environment can reduce these risks. In addition, certain sounds such as music can be used to foster positive infant growth, development, and bonding with caregivers.

In this post, we’ll talk about how to evaluate whether or not your home’s soundscape is beneficial for a newborn infant. In our next post, I’ll give you several ways that you can use music to promote infant development.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider the optimal soundscape:

1.     Is your infant showing signs of stress?

If your infant is showing signs of stress, it is possible that making changes to their soundscape could help. Ideally, we would create a pleasing sound environment for an infant so that signs of stress don’t manifest in the first place. However, environments can change throughout the day (especially when it comes to sound), and it is important to continuously evaluate the soundscape for your infant and their stress cues. Some signs of stress may be obvious, like crying, grunting, or a startle reflex. Other signs of stress are perhaps more subtle, like arching the back and pushing away, excessive hiccups, and splaying fingers. Whatever the case may be, there are some simple ways to modify the soundscape which may be more conducive to a relaxed infant instead of a stressed infant. 

2.     How loud is the sound in the room?

Sound is measured in decibels (dB). To give a reference, the average sound of a jackhammer is about 130 dB, a gas lawn mower is about 110 dB, a blow dryer is about 80 dB, a typical conversation is about 60 dB, and a whisper is about 30 dB. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided guidelines for what constitutes a healthy soundscape. The EPA proposed that in the typical neighborhood we should not be exposed to more than 55 dB on average during the day and no more than 45 dB at night. In addition, according to the EPA it is best to keep hospitals at 45 dB during the day and less than 35 dB at night. Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that sound over 45 dB should be avoided in a NICU. There are a few ways to tell if the room is too loud for an infant. One, you can use a phone application to measure the decibel level in the room. Apps like Decibel 10th for IPhone or Sound Meter for Android are good and valid tools. Two, you can use a reference like the typical dB of conversation or a whisper and discern if the sound in the room is louder or quieter than these things. 

A healthy soundscape has important implications for the development of an infant. Max Corrigan, MS, MT-BC

3.     How many types of sounds are in the room and what are the qualities of these sounds?

Just because sound in a room is under a certain dB level does not mean there is no noise present. Even certain soft sounds for adults can still be unpleasant. It is often a good idea to ask yourself, “If I were to stay in this room, would there be any sounds that may annoy me?” Often times this may be things like a song repeated on a loop, a constant high pitch echoing through the room, or a consistent beeping. While these sounds may be quiet, they can still be considered noise if they are unpleasant. 

4.     Can I use music with my infant?

The short answer to this question is absolutely! There is a great breadth of research that validates the profession of music therapy in the NICU. In addition, music therapists often work with full term infants outside the NICU, including some infants with complex medical histories. While you may not be a trained music therapist, you can still use music with your infant to help calm them and enhance their development.

A healthy soundscape has important implications for the development of an infant. The information provided above may act as a foundation as you strive for this healthy soundscape. In particular, certain recommendations for facilitating music should be given special attention. 

Join me for my next blog post where we’ll talk about ways you can use music to aid in your baby’s healthy development.