Like some of the best baby care tricks, my husband and I discovered the secret of using music as an instant baby calmer completely by accident. Even at her fussiest, there was nothing like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” (You’re breaking my heart/You’re shaking my confidence daily) to quiet my baby’s crying. Twice through the song, and she was slipping blissfully into sweet slumber—almost every time. It almost seemed like a magic spell.
But research suggests we shouldn’t have been so surprised. Psychologists at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, for example, have found that infants are particularly drawn to harmony (a Simon and Garfunkel staple). Also pleasing to babies: repetition and long, drawn-out vowel sounds—the kind adults tend to use in baby talk.
Says Erin Hannon, PhD, director of the Music Lab at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, there’s no need to limit yourself to kid stuff when it comes to enjoying music with a baby. “If parents like the music, then parents will be engaged in sharing that music with a baby,” Hannon explains. “I think parents make a huge mistake in playing music they hate to their children, instead of rocking out to something they love.” In fact, Hannon and other researchers say that exposure to a wide range of music promises a number of benefits for your little one and her growing relationship with you and the outside world.
In the mood
Perhaps by instinct, mothers throughout history and across cultures have seized the power of lullabies to calm and relax a crying newborn. Music is a special tool in a parent’s bag of caregiving tricks, says Diane Bales, PhD, a brain development specialist at The University of Georgia. It offers a way to shape an infant’s mood well before she can understand phrases like “Calm down” or “Wake up.”
“If a baby is sleepy, you can play quiet, soothing music to help her settle down,” Bales advises. “If you want the baby to be more energetic, you play livelier music. We know that music affects the brain.” Music with a steady, consistent beat can be particularly calming for infants, mimicking the rhythm of a mother’s gait or heartbeat, explains Hannon.
And over time, a familiar tune can have the same soothing effect as a favorite blanket or teddy bear. Monica Nuñez, mom of one with another on the way in Southern California, started singing bedtime songs for her daughter Juliette when she was a newborn. “It started with nursery rhymes, but then I started adding whatever songs I could remember … anything from church songs to Adele,” Nuñez says. As she got older, Juliette began requesting stories instead of songs, and Nuñez obliged. Then, the family moved to a new home and when bedtime came around, Juliette began asking her mom to sing for her again. “She needed something comforting and familiar to adjust to her new home, and I was so glad we had music to provide that for her,” Nuñez recalls.
Songs and syntax
Although your newborn’s first words are still a year or so away, she’s already building the foundations of language— and music can help her get off to a strong start. “Music provides a good opportunity to present language in a way that’s natural and meaningful,” Bales explains. “When you sing and play the same songs over and over again, you’re giving your baby a chance to hear the same language over and over again.” In time, that repetition helps her understand how people use words to communicate, and eventually, helps build her vocabulary.
Keep in mind, Bales suggests, that even if you’re singing in a high-pitched, baby-talk voice, it’s important that you use real words and phrases. Nonsense words don’t have the same language-boosting power. Nuñez remembers that the song “Edelweiss” from the musical The Sound of Music became an early favorite of daughter Juliette. “I sang it often, and one time, when Juliette was only a little over 2 years old, I overheard her in her room singing it to herself in her crib as she played with her toys. I never practiced it with her, but she knew and sang every word.”
From the time they are born, infants prefer human voices to just about any other sound. It makes a lot of sense, Hannon explains: “One of the most beneficial things a young, helpless animal can do is learn who is going to take care of it. Learning who is in your social circle is really adaptive.” And sharing music is one of the most common ways we learn who is in our circle of friends and loved ones. Enjoying music together can help strengthen the bond between a baby and his mother, while also deepening a child’s connection to his culture, suggests Hannon. Nuñez agrees: “Juliette’s father loves jazz and blues. I was raised loving Motown, opera and Spanish-language music.” The couple continues to share all of these styles with their daughter—as well as with their soon-to-be second child. “We hope that they will not only enjoy and appreciate this music but, like us, gain an interest in the history and significance of the lyrics and sounds of the music.” Perhaps the most powerful way to bond with your newborn through music is by singing to her, Hannon advises. Don’t worry if your pitch isn’t perfect; your baby doesn’t care. In fact, Hannon says, in one experiment, babies listened to the same song sung twice, once by a mother – not necessarily theirs – and once by a professional singer. The babies prefered listening to the mom. According to Harmon, “They could sense the warmth and connection.”