Happy Baby, Sleepy Baby
An interview, by Maria Ligerakis

In July 2015, Maria Ligerakis, an independent journalist, entrepreneur and young mother based in Melbourne, Autralia, interviewed me, as she was researching about the most effective sounds to soothe a baby to sleep. You can read her entire interview below.

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Maria Ligerakis : You have introduced a novel platform to encourage further exploration of the way users interact with sound. Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to create myNoise.net and what your plans are for the future?

Stéphane Pigeon : The first idea was to design a better “White Noise” machine, one that can truly shape its spectrum according to the user’s taste, or his/her hearing deficiencies, and the intended use of the noise. Then, as I worked on that project, I realised that I could slightly change my algorithms and turn most natural noises into shapeable white noise machines. They would offer the same properties as synthetic white noise, but sound more natural. Think of rain or ocean sounds.

Then, the whole site drifted slowly away from its initial concept, mainly because of the positive response from the many visitors using the website in so many different ways. I started to receive many requests to add new sounds, with their particular uses in mind, uses I never thought about. For example, writers wanting to immerse themselves into a specific environment or mood, when writing, and people with anxiety attacks who found certain sounds would calm them down instantly. Those sounds are often very personal, like a particular atmosphere that reminds them of a happy childhood.

ML : Your website goes a long way toward explaining the intricacies of noise, particularly what is commonly referred to as white noise. Do you believe the term white noise is overused and often misused, and why? Would such intricacies be obvious to the untrained ear?

SP : I am an engineer. It took quite a lot of time indeed to accept the fact that people are misusing the term white noise, a term that comes from the engineering world. Hence, my frustration: Hey this is OUR trademark thing: if you use our term, use it properly! (laughs)

In theory, white noise refers to a signal whose spectrum is flat and phase random. A flat spectrum means that all frequencies are present in an equal amount. A random phase means that there is no coherence between these different frequencies, and that their combination cannot lead to any structured signal but noise. It is called white because of an analogy with light, whose colour turns white in similar conditions.

In the field of audio, white noise sounds very much like the static noise that you hear on the radio when the signal is missing: shhhhh. But that specific sound is typically the result of the random phase, not much of a flat spectrum. Yet, by extension, anything that sounds like a shhhhh has been referred to as “white noise” by the general public, even if the spectrum isn’t really white from the engineer’s point of view.

The exact white distribution sounds very bright to the human ear. Too bright. Our hearing doesn’t sense all the frequencies with the same sensitivity. So, flat - or white - for the engineer isn’t flat for our ears. Engineers have defined other colors, and among them pink is the one that approximately matches the perceived flatness for our ears, and sounds the most balanced for us humans. Many “white noise” generators on the Internet, actually play a pink noise.

myNoise White Noise Generator provides the listener with the random phase signal - the shhhhh - and ten color-coded sliders allow you to program any color you want, preferably the one that sounds best to you, and helps best in a given application. Yet, I call my machine a “White” noise machine - as to adopt the overused term. But once you have set the sliders to your own taste, you have created a color that is unique to you — not white — and that has probably never been named yet!

ML : How beneficial do you think noise is for promoting sleep, particularly in infants?

SP : Please let me address adults first.

Depending on your sleeping habits, you may like to sleep in a silent or a noisy environment. My intuition is that the baseline has been set during your childhood.

If your sleeping room is too quiet, and you miss a certain level of noise, then you can artificially add one. myNoise offers many kinds of noises, and you probably will find one to suit your taste. Cicadas, or a distant thunder, may remind you of lovely summer nights in your childhood, and will lull you to sleep.

If you enjoy silence, you may still want to add a bit of a noise in your room. A silent room can be also a place where you may be easily distracted by the slightest sounds around - like the noise of a distant neighbor’s television set. Usually, you may not notice these quiet sounds, but if you do, and do find them annoying, then you might find it difficult to ignore them. And as you get even more irritated, the situation can only get worse!

The solution is to find another noise that you enjoy better, and that is capable of making the nuisance noise disappear. You will then use this sound as a noise blocker − the sound of rain, for example. Because the sound of rain sounds even, and doesn’t change over time, our brain will wipe it out from our conscious mind after a couple of minutes, sometimes even less. That’s right, you won’t hear it anymore. Our brain excels at filtering out constant stimuli. Think about it; it doesn’t make sense for the brain to devote energy to processing an input that does not change, especially when it is time to shut down and sleep! So, faster than you could have imagined, you will enjoy sleeping in a very particular silence: a silence made by a sound that gets ignored by the brain — the rain, in our example — but still masks the original nuisance!

For infants, I wouldn’t encourage using sounds as sound blockers. You will only add a layer of noise on top of another, while the infant has still the ability to get used to its particular sleeping environment. I would rely on its natural ability to get used to the nuisance, if this works.

But sounds certainly have a calming effect. I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child, I enjoyed playing didgeridoo close to her belly. The baby stopped moving as soon as I started playing. As a scientist, I repeated the experiment as many times as needed, to confirm that there was a clear causality in the relationship. And it was very clear! At first, we thought that our baby was enjoying the sound of the didgeridoo as much as his father. And that he was listening carefully. But then we thought that it could be just the opposite: terrified, the baby wouldn’t move. So, I stopped playing the didgeridoo until the baby was born. And, the experiment started over again. Whenever my baby boy would fuss or cry, I started playing the instrument again, and he calmed down instantly. It wasn’t fear, but profound calmness. I was amazed, and I remember the trick was working so well that I enjoyed making a demo each time we had friends at our home, and our baby was crying. Now, my boy is 17. And the only way a didgeridoo would calm him, is to bang it on his head. (laughs)

Sounds can be part of a routine too, like one does with storytelling before going to sleep. We are talking about creating a comfort zone, where sound is used as one of the modalities. Then later, when the infant has to sleep in a place that is unknown to him, that sound may become a very reassuring element that will help him in getting to sleep.

ML : Infants commonly move through various stages before settling to sleep (for example, fussing, light crying, and perhaps even crying at fever pitch if he/she is particularly tired or irritable). Should the noise of choice be adjusted in line with the various stages of the pre-sleep and sleep cycle? Could changes in pitch, for example, be beneficial during periods of light sleep, deep sleep, or restless periods?

SP : I think that noise should be adjusted in the parent’s room so that... the parents are not hearing the fussing and light crying anymore, and spend a good night. (laughs) Then, the next morning, parents will feel well rested, and that will definitely have a calming effect on the baby throughout the day! I think that often the parents’ condition transposes to the infant. Calmer parents will result in calmer babies. Some people may claim that changes in pitch are needed through the various stages of sleep. You can’t totally remove the expectation effect when it comes from sound therapies.

ML : You talk about sound being tailored to the recipient’s unique profile and the purpose intended. On that basis, do you believe that a noise used to calm a crying baby could well be different from a background noise used during a sleep cycle? Does the power of repetition have a role to play?

SP : Perception is key. And this varies from one person to the other. When applying a sound to yourself, that is easy. You can feel the effect of a sound, and you modify the sound accordingly, until you achieve the desired results. This can be as basic as a sound being felt as irritating, or calming, or much more nuanced, like a feeling or intuition of something good happening to you. This is a feedback process, in which you are in control of the loop. When it comes to finding a sound for someone else, that is something much more difficult, especially with infants, who may not be able to express they feelings yet.

Finding a noise to calm a crying baby, that is possible. Because, the feedback from the baby is obvious. I mean, if you find a sound that is calming for him, he will stop crying. But for a sleep cycle, it is really difficult to know exactly how the baby feels in the middle of the night.

The power of repetition exists. But is this always a good thing? Do you want your baby to get accustomed to a sound up to the point of developing a certain dependency? Sometimes yes, when this dependency can help the baby to overcome other (bigger) problems (like not being able to sleep in places other than home) ... but generally, I don’t think that addictions are good, in general.

ML : It has long been suggested that infants respond to sound that mimics the “noisy” environment that they experienced in-utero. The current spectrum of choice is heavily skewed toward options including the sound of a hairdryer, washing machine, fan, heartbeat, static etc. In your opinion, is this spectrum of noise restrictive and/or too narrow? Is there a case for custom designed sounds that move away from these common options and how can this be achieved?

First, it is hard to tell what the infant (in-utero) is hearing. His/her ear is not formed yet, and the medium he lives in, is not air but a liquid. Sounds in a liquid are totally different! And then you have the mother’s womb that acts like a low filter. I wouldn’t dare impose the sound of an hairdryer or washing machine upon my baby all night long. You may introduce a kind of dependency, or just train its young brain to filter out these sounds, and develop an insensitivity to certain frequencies. You don’t want to artificially influence or bias a brain that in developing, in my opinion.

That being said, I did a soundscape that emulates the sounds in a womb, called In Utero. You can always try this sound and see if it helps. From the various user testimonials, it seems that the sound positively affects... a lot of adults too ;-)

ML : Should users think “outside the box” when it comes to noise and what they are trying to achieve (i.e. masking other noise, tinnitus etc.) and what are your tips for doing so?

Yes, sure. I always encourage self-experimentation. I believe that - when it comes to sound - everyone’s perception is different. Music for example. Enjoying Heavy Metal, doesn’t make Heavy Metal enjoyable for everyone.

That’s why myNoise.net has been designed more like a toolbox, and not a step-by-step therapy. I don’t promise anything on the website, but offer all the tools needed for serious experimentation. myNoise unique calibration feature allows you to hear sounds like you used to hear when you were a kid; that is to say, when your hearing was perfect. This can affect your mood instantly, by bringing back to you forgotten memories from your childhood. People use this often, to treat anxiety problems. From self-experience and from the user testimonials (I received more than 6000 messages so far), I know that sound can help in many ways, but in so many ways, that my advice would be that you have to discover how it can help you! And because my website is free, I really encourage doing so. You may be surprised by what you will discover.

ML : It appears there are some conflicting views on “safe” sound levels for infants whose senses are still developing. Some medical professionals say sound should only be played at a volume equivalent to a “soft shower” while others say harsher, multi-frequency sounds at 75-80dB are acceptable. From an audio engineering perspective, what are your thoughts?

SP : I enjoy my hearing so much that I would stay on the safe side. Humans can hear from 20Hz up to 20kHz. This is among the widest range among animals. Some can hear higher frequencies - like bats - but then not as low as we do. It takes quite some effort to destroy the hearing. So, I think 75-80dB is still acceptable. But one day, you may realise that there are some sounds that you can’t hear anymore; it often starts with the very upper range. Then, you may regret not having taken enough precautions to save your hearing. And even if your audiologist says you have perfect hearing, beware that the ENT test only covers part of our hearing range: the area that is needed to understand speech. You can pass the ENT test perfectly, and yet not hear the highest frequencies we are supposed to hear. What is really shocking to me, is that during parties, loud music is played in the presence of young children. Sometimes during school festivities, this can go as high as 96dB. Yet no one complains. So, in this regard, 75-80dB is definitely acceptable.

We are in a world where we are ready to ban WiFi networks from schools, by precautionary principles, but at the same time, we do little when it comes to exposure of our children to loud sounds. It is your turn to explain this to me... (laughs)

You can make a funny hearing test, by using myNoise Summer Night soundscape. Have a try! If you want to precisely monitor your hearing, check this serious online hearing test too.