Chances are, the majority of us will have been sung to as a baby, whether by a parent or another close relative. But what exactly is the point of this bedtime ritual that as adults, we have little to no recollection of?
Dr Anita Collins, is an award-winning Australian researcher who explores the impact of music education on cognitive development and is the brains behind new, seven-part podcast series, The Lullaby Effect, launched in connection with Kinderling Kids Radio. The podcast series draws on international research Dr Anita has been privy to, to explain how singing can help your child develop language, become more empathetic and increase the connection between parent and baby.
Part and parcel of being a parent is wondering exactly what it is that your baby is experiencing at every stage of their sensory development, and it turns out, most of the answers depend largely on their listening skills.
“Because a newborn baby’s hearing is far better developed than any of its other senses, (in fact it’s on a par with an adult’s, right from birth), the variety of sounds, tones and rhythms that children hear become the fundamental basis for all other sensory development,” says Dr Anita. “Our ears never really ‘turn off’ as such, so a baby’s hearing acts as a massive data-collection system that takes in everything around it, which allows it to act as the connection point for all other senses.”
One of the best examples of the way this works is in relation to babies’ motor development. Play your child a piece of music or sing them a song and they’ll likely perform a very cute ‘bop’ to the beat – a sign that the auditory system is soaking up the music, sending it to the motor cortex and translating it into movement.
“Hearing basically helps different areas of the brain learn how to talk to one another,” continues Dr Anita. “And often what we consider to be really high cognitive development, comes from the ability to integrate, understand and connect all of those different senses.”
But the idea of hearing as a “connector” has recently been found to go beyond cognitive benefits. In a research first, scientists from America investigated the physiological effect singing lullabies had on both bubba and mother. With parent and child each connected up via wireless detectors to chart changes in body heat, respiration, brain activity and heartbeat, they found that the moment the mother began singing a lullaby, all of these different elements suddenly synced.
“The findings show that this kind of bonding between parent and child begins incredibly early on in a child’s development and, what’s more, it tells us that one of the most powerful ways to really connect with your child is by singing to them.” explains Dr Anita.
In fact, the power of song is so potent, it’s actually been found to alleviate some of the symptoms of post-natal depression, with lullaby singing increasingly becoming part of the raft of important steps being taken to support mothers suffering from post-natal depression.
But while the professionals are confident lullabies help to alleviate anxiety for both parties, for many parents, the thought of singing aloud to their child no doubt induces a sense of self-consciousness and an apprehension that their tone deaf warblings might, in fact, be doing more harm than good.
According to Dr Anita, however, the concerns are unfounded.
“As their mother or father, you’re already your baby’s favourite rock star. Your child automatically associates your voice with safety, love and closeness, so they prefer it over any other. The quality, and even the content of your singing, really doesn’t matter – you only have to listen to the macabre lyrics of some of the most famous lullabies like Ring a Ring o’ Roses and Rock-A-Bye Baby to get my drift!
“Tom Selleck hit the nail on the head in the classic 90s movie, Three Men and a Baby,” concludes Dr Anita. “He’s sat there reading the sports magazine aloud to the baby and says, ‘it doesn’t matter what I read, it’s the tone I use’ and that couldn’t be more true. What matters most when it comes to singing lullabies is the physical closeness with your child and the combination of emotion and musicality in your voice.”
So, with all this in mind, what elements make up the perfect lullaby?
Four lines of lyrics is usually enough to build repetition and rhythm.
Typically, the third line of a lullaby sounds very similar to the first to create a memorable melody and predictable structure that gives your child a sense of familiarity.
The combination of a slow tempo and a soft, low voice will make your child feel more comfortable and help to soothe them to sleep. They tend to really like the rumble and vibration of a male voice too.
As we’ve already touched on, babies are engaged by a variety of sounds, so the most effective lullabies are often a balance of lilting lyrics and short musical intervals.
To hear more about this fascinating research, listen to the podcast series ‘The Lullaby Effect’ via the Kinderling app, or wherever you get your podcasts. Alternatively, visit www.kinderling.com.au/lullaby for more information on the array of lullaby content available on Kinderling Kids Radio throughout July.