Singing lullabies has been part of every human culture for as long as we have been able to sing. We associate it with soothing babies, but it is only in the last few years that we have learned that lullabies are so much more than that.
“Lullabies can be any songs that are sung gently”
When a parent sings a lullaby to a baby, several remarkable things happen. The baby responds by slowing its heart rate and breathing, but the amazing thing is that the same thing happens to the parent. Singing a lullaby to your baby is self-soothing, and one of the best ways to deal with those times in parenting when you are stressed or anxious.
If your baby is in a neonatal intensive care unit it can be very difficult for you as a parent as it is so much harder to bond. Again, singing a gentle lullaby to your baby has been shown to have a significant effect on your baby’s well-being and a positive impact on the emotional state of the parent.
Lullabies help parent-baby bonding in neonatal units
The sad thing is that the art of singing to babies has been replaced with electronic music – a Spotify playlist or you tube. This kind of music does not work in nearly the same way, as babies are not responding to the music of the lullaby (their brains are not that sophisticated yet), they are responding to your voice. If is YOUR voice they want to hear, no matter how out of tune or ordinary you think it is.
Your baby can hear you even before it is born, and that is the best time to start singing to them. Babies hearing develops around 18 weeks of pregnancy. Studies have shown that babies can recognise lullabies that were sung to them in utero when they are sung to them after they are born.
Babies who have been sung to by their parents have been shown to have better sleep and feeding patterns and very interestingly, better speech development. When babies first start to make speech sounds, it is a babbling, and the formation of the sound is very like the way we form sound when we sing. We really sing before we speak.
Singing to babies is also a way to develop the bond between parent and baby and is important for both the mother and her partner.
Why do people in Western culture sing to their babies less?
When you are singing to your baby, he/she doesn’t understand what you are saying. The words are really for us as we sing them, as it soothes us to say them – and it is also very powerful for any older children you may have, to hear them.
Kin songs – or songs that are from your family – have been found to have the greatest soothing effect on both the parent and baby, so ask you parents and grandparents what they sang to their babies.
I have made a podcast called Lullaby: The First Steps which can be found on any podcast provider. It teaches you a new lullaby each episode. It is free and I encourage you to start from the beginning as it explains a lot more about why lullabies are important for you and your baby.
Dr Marie van Gend
Author and presenter of Lullaby: First Steps