The science of lullabies

Why singing to your sweetheart—even if it’s off-key—is a good thing.

Rocking baby to sleep to the sound of mom’s voice softly crooning a simple tune is a nightly ritual that’s stuck around for thousands of years—why? Because there’s a biological reason tipping off a mother’s urge to break into song.

Sound off
Although it might seem like your new arrival only eats, sleeps and poops, she’s hardly an incognizant little lump. Newborns are hardwired to take in lights, faces and sounds to boost their growing brains.

That last part is especially important for you, mamas: Scientists have known for decades that infants as young as 3 days old can recognize their mothers’ voices from the womb. Moreover, they show a strong preference for mom’s familiar voice over others. (So, remember, you’re a lot more to her than a milk-maker or diaper-changer—even if, especially during the early weeks, it feels like that’s all you do.)

From its intonations and pitches to the pace and rhythm at which you speak, your voice is unique, and it’s what your baby wants—and needs—to hear. A mama’s voice is not only soothing, but it can also boost her babe’s development.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that premature infants confined to incubators developed notably larger auditory cortexes, the hearing center of the brain, when they were exposed to the sounds of their mothers’ voices and heartbeats via speakers.

Tune in
Even when they aren’t singing a specific song, new moms tend to talk to their little ones in a high-pitched, melodic voice (aka baby talk). It’s as if mothers are biologically programmed to sing to their offspring, and that might not be far from the truth.

Colwyn Trevarthen, a professor emeritus of child psychology at the University of Edinburgh, studies how moms and babies interact, and his research findings show that newborns are naturally fluent in the language of music. Infants have an excellent sense of rhythm, and they respond to music on an emotional and physical level.

Parents instinctively sing to their children as a way to calm them, but researchers can now back up those beliefs with hard evidence. For example, a recent study published in the journal Psychology of Music found that singing lullabies to children helped lower their heart rates, reduce anxiety and minimize their perception of pain.

Remarkably, the results prove that it’s not merely attention that tots find comforting—because reading stories to the children didn’t produce the same effects. Singing, it seems, is special.

And before you reach for your radio or mp3 player, that same study suggests a live rendition is often more effective than recorded versions. As a mother sings, she improvises. Maybe her volume rises when baby cries out or her tempo slows as baby begins to nod off. Throughout her nightly recital, her voice changes to match her child’s disposition. Although your newborn doesn’t yet understand the words of your song, you’re communicating your love and support in other ways.

Calm down
Studies of newborns in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) reveal that babies prefer lullaby-like songs to other music. It’s not just a mama’s voice that makes lullabies soothing. Most are written in 6/8 meter and composed of only a handful of notes. They’re simple, repetitive—almost hypnotic —and their gentle rhythm embodies a rocking or swaying that’s reminiscent of the womb.

Your little one’s brain is built to detect and remember patterns, from the repetition in a children’s song to the consistency of a bedtime routine. So it makes perfect sense that lullabies are a natural part of saying goodnight. According to Heather Turgeon, MFT, and Julie Wright, MFT, authors of The Happy Sleeper, “The consistent, soothing motions that you go through right before bed will become a potent cue for your baby to wind down and shift into sleep mode.” These modest tunes also benefit mothers by helping them connect with their babes. Performing a private concert gives moms the opportunity to share what’s in their hearts, whether it’s joy, worry or grief.

Many lullabies, particularly those that have endured generations, contain what Federico García Lorca, a 1920s poet who studied Spanish lullabies, called a “depth of sadness.” (Remember the broken bough in the familiar “Rockabye Baby”?) Lorca believed that lullabies acted as a kind of therapy for new moms. They allowed them to vocalize their hopes and fears.

That same idea is what prompted the creation of The Lullaby Project, part of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections, an outreach program that brings music to people outside of traditional concert halls. When it first began, The Lullaby Project sought to help pregnant teenagers bond with their babies-to-be. Moms were paired with professional musicians, and together they composed and recorded a lullaby written by each mother for her child.

The project has since grown to include mothers and fathers who are facing challenging circumstances, such as homelessness or incarceration. Find out more and listen to the collection at

With all the gadgets at our fingertips, it’s easy to search for and stream baby’s favorite tunes, but don’t be shy about belting out a few songs on your own. Based on the research, your mini-me would prefer to hear your voice anyway. So don’t worry about winning any Grammy Awards, and just sing your heart out.

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By Chantel Newton


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