The Power of Lullabies

When my daughter (a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate!) was born, one of my greatest pleasures in being a new mother was singing to her. I sang often: to amuse her, to distract her, to comfort her, and, frankly, to keep my own spirits up as I went about caring for this mysterious, wonderful, yet occasionally perverse being who had taken over my life. And while we both enjoyed these musical moments during our day, nothing could put us into a mutual state of contented thralldom quite like a song at bedtime.

I would croon old standards such as “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “The Nearness of You” as I held her in my arms. If she fussed when I put her into the crib, I simply kept singing as I moved closer and closer to the door of her room. By the time Emma was around nine months old, bedtime had become a no-fuss ritual of a story and a song that we maintained all through her childhood—for so many years, in fact, that she has asked me not to tell you how old she was when our lullaby habit finally faded away. (Pssst: she was in double digits.)

What makes a lullaby so magical? It seems to be a universal impulse for adults to sing to their babies; every culture has its own lullaby tradition. Researchers have shown that parents—whether they realize it or not—even have a special “lullaby voice,” a way of adjusting the pitch and tempo that’s similar to the adjustments of tone (so-called “motherese”) that adults use when speaking to an infant. Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto has shown that infants have a high preference for this “infant-directed singing” and can distinguish between audiotapes of their parent directing their singing to them versus singing the same song in an empty room.

Trehub suggests that the infant is sensitive to the emotional undertones present in infant-directed singing, and that the lullaby is a kind of “synchronization device,” which coordinates emotion between parent and child. It lulls them both; it produces relaxation and promotes bonding. This was certainly true for me and my daughter. Over the years, lullaby time was when we had our deepest conversations: it was when a naughty deed would be confessed, a fear disclosed, a worrisome question asked.

The lullaby eased all of that, making everything all right at the end of the day. And thanks to Music Together, we collected a treasured assortment of lullabies that quickly supplanted my old jazz standards.* It was as if—right next to the bookshelf where she browsed to pick out her bedtime story—Emma had a virtual shelf full of lullabies to choose from, too. Bedtime in our house was a peaceful, deeply satisfying time of day.

If I could offer only one piece of advice to parents everywhere, it would be to sing to your child. Songs have a powerful impact on children—they can brighten their mood, relax them, comfort them, or help them to sleep—and that impact, in turn, helps the parent feel competent in their nurturing skills. And if by some chance you can sing only one song each day, please make it a lullaby. Sweet dreams!

*Interestingly, Trehub’s research has also suggested that there is wide cross-cultural agreement as to what listeners recognize as a “lullaby.” I doubt my beloved Gershwin brothers or Hoagy Carmichael would have carried us so well through the years; their sophisticated ballads lack the simplicity and repetitiveness that give the true lullaby its soothing quality.