White Noise and Cognitive Dissonance by Rahima Baldwin Dancy

It’s a puzzle to me how and why so many of the Waldorf and LifeWays early childhood programs I have visited turn on some kind of mechanical device to make “white noise” when it’s time for nap.  These teachers have heard and believe Rudolf Steiner’s indication that “the young child is all sense organ,” and they apply this understanding in a wide range of other activities.  They wouldn’t think of putting a lullaby on a CD player before leaving the nap room, or playing recorded music during the morning. They go to great lengths to try to create a harmonious environment that surrounds the children with living sounds and are even likely to use a broom or carpet sweeper rather than whipping out the vacuum cleaner after snack, to avoid the noise. Yet they don’t hesitate to turn on a fan or the clothes dryer or a machine with recordings of static or nature sounds, all in the name of lulling the children to sleep and keeping them there.

In addition, they most likely have gained an appreciation for Steiner’s insights that sleep is a time of physical and spiritual nourishment when the child (and we) “journey into the spiritual world,” “digest impressions” and are open to inspiration—not to mention “angelic beings.” Prospective teachers learn that how the child goes into and comes out of sleep can make a difference, something that is easy to observe in ourselves.

Because I am still so puzzled by the cognitive dissonance involved in turning to white noise in otherwise-Steiner-inspired programs, I have asked teachers why do they use it?  Some tell me they have come to depend on white noise when they go to sleep.  While it’s less damaging than using sleeping pills, that doesn’t mean it’s a good habit to be passing on to the children. As Steiner-inspired early childhood teachers who are devoted to teaching good habits, this kind of reasoning can only be described as “cognitive dissonance,” or being oblivious to the contradictions involved.

Another teacher told me that a well-known Waldorf early childhood book mentions using a fan to help children get to sleep, to which I would say, “Don’t believe everything you read.”  Or even everything Steiner says. Work with your own questions and illuminate your own areas of cognitive dissonance: What have you been taught? What do you observe? Does this practice make sense?

The most common response teachers give is that “there are so many other noises in the room,” and they want to help children fall asleep and stay asleep. However, they also share that the same children who weren’t sleeping before using white noise aren’t sleeping now, either. My experience is that children get used to the noises in their environment, and I have found that their sleep patterns don’t change when a teacher stops using white noise—little Susie will still wake up when the garbage truck comes, whether there is white noise or not!

My experience in programs where I have been a mentor and the teacher has agreed to try naptime without white noise is that her unlimited intention (“The children will sleep”) and the “sleepy vibe” she puts off are more effective than a fan or the white noise machine in getting children to sleep–and they sleep just as long.  

While it’s true that the mechanical noise from being on an airplane (often combined with having gotten up way too early to get to the airport) will often knock you out even if you want to stay awake, I’m not sure this hypnotic kind of sleep has the same restorative qualities as “natural sleep”—it doesn’t feel that way to me, and I doubt the brain waves would be the same.

Given all the above, how do so many of us fall into the use of mechanical “white” noise as an aid for sleep? I think we must do it unconsciously, because it is so much a part of our culture, which seems to abhor silence. My own feeling is that this is one area of cognitive dissonance where it’s time to wake up!

Rahima Baldwin Dancy is author of You Are Your Child’s First Teacher and ran Rainbow Bridge LifeWays Program in Boulder before retiring last year.  She and her husband, Agaf, are now traveling and Rahima does consultation with LifeWays and Waldorf programs throughout the world.