The Science of Singing Lullabies for Babies

Why singing to your sweetheart—even if it’s off-key—is a good thing. We've included a playlist!

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.

Your Voice: The Original Lullaby Song

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.

Best Lullabies Karaoke Playlist

  • Hush Little Baby

  • Rock-a-Bye Baby

  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

  • You Are My Sunshine

  • Frère Jacques

  • Mozart’s Lullaby

  • Brahms’ Lullaby (Cradle Song)

  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow

  • Baa Baa Black Sheep

  • When You Wish Upon a Star (Disney)

  • Beatles’ Golden Slumbers

  • All the Pretty Little Horses

Sweet Dreams and Grooves

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 for babies 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 version of a soothing lullaby. 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.

Hush Little Baby, Off to Dreamland

Studies of newborns in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) reveal that babies prefer lullaby music to other music. It’s not just a mama’s voice that makes lullabies such soothing songs. 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 bedtime lullabies and nursery rhymes 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.

With all the gadgets at our fingertips, it’s easy to search for and stream the best baby sleep music to ensure sweet dreams, 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. Whether it’s classical music like Johannes Brahms or something more familiar like the Beatles, there are plenty of baby friendly songs to choose from.

We’ve gathered a few of our favorites into a classic lullabies playlist just for you, complete with all the instrumentals and lyrics so you can sing along.

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By Chantel Newton

Image: iStock.com

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