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Why do babies like lullabies so much?

Why do babies like lullabies so much?
What do lullabies and summer movies have in common? Well, about half of both are thinly veiled horror stories. Lullabies don’t tell quite as many stories of demonic possession, but they can still be pretty grim, and this is true of lullabies from many different parts of the world. The scary nature of many traditional lullabies is generally agreed to be because these frightening stories give new parents a way to vent their insecurities and fears while, at the same time, getting their babies to lie down and take a nap. But what is it about these songs that works so well at soothing babies to sleep that they’ve been passed down for generations?

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock 

Some of the biggest and most important ingredients in many important lullaby experiences aren’t about the song at all – they’re the rocking and parental closeness that often go with the lullaby, and the familiarity of a parent’s voice. Babies can recognize their mothers’ voices almost immediately after birth, and are more soothed by other familiar voices in their lives not long after that. You’ve probably noticed that there’s no problem with straying from the traditional lullaby path and throwing in something a little bit more modern – whatever has been stuck in your head this week, songs your parents liked when you were growing up, or even the first tune you learned to play during an elementary school music class disaster. Often, it’s the act of singing to Baby, not the song you sing, that sends them off to dreamland.

Morning bells are ringing

Of course, the benefits of closeness, and the familiarity of a parent’s voice, don’t take into account the benefits that several studies say live music can have on babies generally, whether or not it comes from their parents. It’s also true that many babies love recorded lullabies that may not come with parental rocking or walking at all. A 2009 study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America recorded newborns recognizing the beat in music – long before babies can walk, talk, or even see in color, they can recognize and appreciate music.

More than that, a 2011 study in Current Biology found that the brains of the 3-to-7-month-olds it studied honed in on and processed the emotions in a human voice way sooner than they could understand words. It’s one of those scientific findings that just sounds obvious – why did anyone need to prove that babies respond to the emotional tones of voices? Couldn’t they just spend some time with a baby? But put together with the early recognition of the pattern of beats in music, it makes babies’ appreciation of the soothing tones of lullabies make a lot of sense.

Some research has gone further than the idea that lullabies do what they’ve been designed to do for thousands of years, and soothe babies to sleep. A 2013 study published in Pediatrics shows a link between live music sung by trained music therapists and premature babies in the NICU healing faster and feeling less pain as they’re cared for.

How I wonder what you are

In the end, if there’s a lullaby Baby like the best, whether it’s something you’d find in a traditional book of lullaby lyrics, or an interpretation of a song you heard on the radio once, they probably love it for their own reasons that, just like so many things people love, has as much to do with their associations with it as it does with the song itself, by this point. One association that’s almost definitely important to them, though, is the way they share it with you.

  • Kimberly A. Allen. “Music Therapy in the NICU: Is there Evidence to support Integration for Procedural Support?” Adv. Neonatal Care. 13(5): 10.1097/ANC.0b013e3182a0278b. Web. Oct. 2013.
  • Anna Blasi, et al. “Early Specialization for Voice and Emotion Processing in the Infant Brain.” Current Biology. Web. June 30 2011.
  • Juju Chang, Maggie Burbank. “Science of Song: Do Lullabies Help Sick Babies?” ABC News. ABC News. May 29 2008. Web.
  • Joanne Loewy, et al. “The Effects of Music Therapy on Vital Signs, Feeding, and Sleep in Premature Infants.” Pediatrics. Web. April 2013.
  • Jenny Marder. “Why are so many lullabies also murder ballads?” PBS News Hour. NewsHour Productions, LLC, August 13 2014. Web.
  • Kimberly Sena Moore. “Does Singing to your Baby Really Work?” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, July 29 2011. Web.
  • Nina Perry. “The universal language of lullabies.” BBC News. BBC, January 21 2013. Web.
  • Istvan Winkler, et al. “Newborn infants detect the beat in music.” Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences. Vol. 16 No. 7. Web. February 17 2009.

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