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 In Blog, Music, Pediatric Psychology

Singing lullabies and nursery rhymes to children is something parents have done for generations. Now, researchers confirm that singing to babies has a real benefit. A study from the University of Montreal finds that infants remained calm longer when listening to a song. The findings suggest that parents, especially parents in challenging circumstances, can improve their infants’ emotional regulation through singing or playing music.

The researchers wanted to find out if infants are fascinated with music like adults are. Adults might tap their feet when they hear a song they resonate with, but babies lack the motor skills to do the same. The study investigated whether infants had an emotional response to the music.

Thirty infants listened to recordings of speech (baby-talk and adult-directed) and music. To limit the influence of outside factors, the recordings were in an unfamiliar language—Turkish—and not from the infants’ parents. During the experiment, parents sat behind their infants, so they would not influence the results, and the infants were exposed to minimal stimuli. The researchers played recordings for the infants until they made a “cry face,” a commonly understood expression of distress. The researchers timed how long it took for the infants to become upset.

Song was the most successful for keeping the infants calm. Infants remained calm for nine minutes on average when they listened to singing. In response to speech, the babies remained calm for only half as long. The researchers also found the same effect when they used songs and speech in another language.

“Our findings leave little doubt about the efficacy of singing nursery rhymes for maintaining infants’ composure for extended periods. Even in the relatively sterile environment of the testing room—black walls, dim illumination, no toys, and no human visual or tactile stimulation—the sound of a woman singing prolonged infants’ positive or neutral states and inhibited distress,” stated Professor Isabelle Peretz of the Center for Research on Brain, Music and Language at the University of Montreal.

Mothers, especially in the West, tend to talk to their infants more than sing. Given the emotion-regulatory benefits of song, the researchers suggest that mothers sing to their children more often.

This research is published in the journal Infancy.

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