Why Does Shhhhing Make Your Baby So Happy? Woodmam

Why Does Shhhhing Make Your Baby So Happy? Woodmam

Did you ever notice how the sound of the wind or the rumble of the ocean makes you feel relaxed and at peace? Shhhhing is so deeply a part of who we are that it’s even profoundly calming for adults.

For new babies, loud shhhhing is the “sound of silence,” the anti-cry. Shushing may seem a strange way to help a crying baby; however, so is turning on a vacuum cleaner. Yet that’s what many baby books suggest! What’s so special about that sound?

The answer is, this loud white noise imitates your baby’s experience inside the womb and switches on her calming reflex.

When I asked Nancy and Gary to guess what their baby, Natalie, heard inside the womb, Nancy said it was probably something like, “Hey, Gary, get over here!” Nancy was partly right. Fetuses do hear the muttering of voices and other “outside” noise. However, most of their daily entertainment is a continuous, rhythmic symphony of shhhh. Wave upon wave of blood surging through the arteries of your womb makes this harsh, whooshing sound, which is as loud and rough as a gale wind blowing through the trees.

How do we know this is what they hear? In the early 1970s, doctors placed tiny microphones into the wombs of women in labor and found the power of the sound was an incredible eighty to ninety decibels (even louder than a vacuum cleaner)! (You may have heard this womb noise when your doctor or midwife checked your fetus with an abdominal microphone.) To get a good idea of what this sounds like to your baby, try dunking your head under the bathwater while the faucet is turned on—full blast.

Don’t worry that your newborn baby might get overwhelmed by such a forceful noise. Although the sound inside the uterus is louder than a vacuum cleaner, your baby doesn’t hear it that loud. That’s because her middle ears are waterlogged with fluid, her ear canals absorb sound and are plugged with waxy vernix, and she has thick, inefficient eardrums.

These sound-damping factors last until a few months after birth. Gradually your baby’s hearing will improve as her eardrum changes from being like a piece of thick paper to a tightly stretched piece of cellophane that vibrates with any distant noise. However, for a while, her reduced hearing reduces the intensity of your shhhhing, or vacuum cleaner, to a comforting din.

Imagine your baby’s shock at birth when she emerges from that rich uterine world of loud quadraphonic whooshing into the quiet world of whispering and tiptoeing that parents create for their newborns. Sure, we may enjoy resting in a still room, but for your baby the silence can be deafening. And her muffled hearing will make your house seem even more stark and empty. New babies experience a type of sensory deprivation, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that they cry from excessive quiet. It’s as if they’re saying, “Please, someone make a little noise!”

Once Upon a Time: How Parents Have Used Shhhhing in Other Times and Cultures

Do you remember when your grade-school librarian shushed you? All humans go “shhhh” (or “ssss”) to say “Be quiet” to each other. This sound is one of the very few vocalizations understood by all humans, in every corner of the globe. And in many unrelated languages it’s the root of the word asking for silence:

“chut” (Urdu) “shuu” (Vietnamese)

“chutee” (Serbian) “soos” (Armenian)

“tzrch” (Eritrean) “teeshina (Slovenian)

“hush,” “silence” (English) “toosst” (Swedish)

“hushket” (Arabic) “chupraho” (Hindi)

“sheket” (Hebrew) “shuh-shuh” (Chinese)

“stille” (German)

Even the Japanese use shhhh as the root of their request for quiet: “shizukani” (although as a lover of Japanese food I might have guessed it would be “shu-shi”).

As strange as it may seem, I believe that the calming effect of shhhh is something that babies taught us. If it were not for the immediate reaction cave babies had to shushing, parents would never have noticed its tremendous value. I’m sure that once a Stone Age mom learned this great trick, she couldn’t wait to share it with her friends. And through the centuries, the discovery and teaching of this technique was probably repeated in every village and tribe around the world.

Unfortunately, most of us today haven’t had much experience watching women with their babies. That’s one of the reasons why so many parents and grandparents have forgotten this age-old, effective technique.

The Story of Shhhh: The Calming Sound That Babies Taught … Us

How did mothers from the Alaskan tundra to the swamps of Albania discover that this strange sound soothes screaming babies? No one is absolutely sure, but my guess is that it happened something like this:

About fifty thousand years ago, two Stone Age mothers were eating lunch together when one woman’s baby started to shriek. Her mom immediately leaned over her “cave” baby’s cradle and tried to calm her by squawking in her ear—the way she had seen a mother pterodactyl sucessfully calm her young. But the baby continued to cry.

When the poor child had just about wailed to the point of “Neanderthal-mania,” her mom’s friend asked if she could try something she had once seen another mom do to soothe her frantic baby. The “cave” mother handed her wild little “infantasaurus rex” over and watched in amazement as her friend held her tightly and made a harsh, shhhhing sound right in her infant’s ear. Like magic, the baby suddenly became calm!
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