When my eldest daughter was born, one of my greatest pleasures was singing to her. At the time, I didn’t have a very big repertoire, but I sang what came to mind. In the beginning it was a lot of Christmas carols, but a few semesters of Music Together® classes took care of that! Sometimes I sang to distract her, many times to soothe her, and often just to keep myself sane as I went about the daily routine of caring for this new being in my life. While music often carried us throughout our harried days, it was ultimately lullaby time (before naps and in the evening) which put us both into the peaceful state needed for relaxation and sleep.
What makes a lullaby so magical? It seems to be a universal impulse for adults to sing to their babies; every culture has its own lullaby tradition. Unconsciously, mothers everywhere rock their babies and coo to them, when calm is needed. This rhythmic movement, in combination with a caregiver’s voice, is a soothing balm to a crying babe. Despite many parents’ inhibitions around singing, you can be assured that your child loves your voice more than anyone else; they are the kindest of critics! One study by Nakata and Trehub (2003) compared babies’ responsiveness to their mothers’ singing and mothers’ speech. Babies six months old preferred when their mothers sang to them than when they spoke to them.
Researchers have shown that parents—whether they realize it or not—even have a special “lullaby voice,” a way of adjusting the pitch and tempo that’s similar to the adjustments of tone (so-called “motherese”) that adults use when speaking to an infant. Infants have a high preference for this “infant-directed singing.” Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto has shown that infants can even distinguish between audiotapes of their parent directing their singing to them versus singing to an empty room.
Trehub suggests that the infant is sensitive to the emotion present in infant-directed singing, and that the lullaby is a kind of “synchronization device,” which coordinates emotion between parent and child. It lulls them both; producing a release of hormones that promote relaxation and bonding. Playing a CD of lullaby music simply does not have the same effect as singing directly to your baby. Over time, the closeness that a lullaby creates, ultimately helps children to feel secure and loved. For our family, lullaby time became over the years, the time of day for true confessions, the spilling of childhood worries, and deep questions. It was a peaceful, satisfying end to our days.
If there is just one piece of advice I could share around lullabies, it would be to simply sing to your child. The content or quality bears little weight. A few strains of your favourite song might be all that’s needed, as simplicity and repetitiveness is what gives a lullaby it’s soothing quality. Songs have a tremendous impact on children – they can brighten their mood, relax them, comfort them and help them to sleep. In turn, parents can feel competent in their nurturing skills. If you should find that there is only one song sung each day, I hope you will make it a lullaby.