This article appears in May-June Family magazine.
Whether your voice is an angelic sound or a grating falsetto, a parent’s lullaby is nurturing to a baby emotionally and physically. Research has shown that music decreases babies’ stress response and helps their neural development, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics.
“There is a lot of science behind that the human voice soothes babies far quicker than rocking or rocking and singing. Also, babies use our singing voice to identify carers and strangers,” said Dr. Anita Collins, author of “The Lullaby Effect.”
“Music has been shown to be cognitively beneficial and it can even help with language development,” said Gayle Cloud, neurologic music therapist at the University of Washington Medical Center. Lullabies are also a way for babies and parents to bond emotionally and physiologically, said Cloud, who practices music therapy at the medical center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Proven health effects
Having a child in a neonatal unit is stressful for both the baby, who is struggling to grow and develop, and for parents. To help parents and child engage and bond, Cloud works with parents to write custom, heartfelt lullabies that incorporate familiar melodies and personal meaning.
“Custom lullabies give people the opportunity to take a familiar melody or an original tune and put together words that have a specific meaning. It’s very personal,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter what the parent is singing as long as they like it and they infuse the singing with emotion such as excitement or calm,” Collins said.
The choice of song doesn’t matter either, Cloud said. It could be a tune from the Beatles or a song from Lady Gaga. The best lullabies are simple, easy to remember and repetitive, she said.
In addition to calming effects, music has the ability to activate areas in a baby’s brain and promote development that includes pain management, reduced heart rate, increase in oxygen saturation and the ability for an infant to suck faster or slower as needed, Cloud said.
The science behind music therapy is newer, but lullabies have been present across cultures since the beginning of time, Cloud said. Singing and rocking a baby replicates the feeling of being rocked in the womb and listening to a mother’s voice, she said.
Create your own
Whether a baby in a hospital or a toddler at home, lullabies provide connection. While Cloud’s custom lullabies are crafted to create a memory for families who need healing support, any parent can create one:
- Don’t worry about singing well. “It absolutely doesn’t matter. Baby will think whatever you sing is music to its ears. They will find it comforting,” Cloud said.
- “Sing the songs you like but do it with the right emotions for soothing — soft, quiet, low voice, slow speed or tempo. Sing often, even instructions to toddlers like ‘brush your teeth, then your hair’ and use your body when you sing like clapping and swaying,” Collins said.
- Select a melody that is easy to remember, whether that’s “You Are My Sunshine” or Ariana Grande’s “Seven Rings.”
- Select words that are calming and share what you’re feeling. Use the child’s name and terms of endearment. Make it personal, such as “We’re so glad that you’re here” or “We’re here for you as you grow,” Cloud said. Include the names of brothers or sisters or even beloved pets, she said.
- Words don’t have to rhyme to be meaningful, Cloud said.