17 Jul 2017

The benefits of singing to babies

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 17 July 2017

Sing to your baby. It’s not a matter of if and how, rather a matter of when. And it is beneficial to mother and child.

Singing to babies helps grow the attachment between mother and infant and encourages children to self-regulate. It can also help mothers with postnatal depression and benefit babies with Down's Syndrome.

Dr Shannon de L’Etoile has spent years studying the link between mothers, babies and singing.

“All mothers do it,” she says. “It’s considered a universal care-giving behavior meaning all mothers in all cultures do it… regardless of socioeconomic status, of educational background, of language, of literacy.

“Mothers don’t need training to do this.”

Shannon recorded mothers singing to their babies. While these recordings aren’t suitable for commercial release, it doesn’t matter she says, because babies love to hear their mothers’ voices regardless of tone, pitch or pace.

When singing to babies, mothers tend to sing in a higher pitch, which is thought to convey “more emotionality – more content, more happiness, and more lovingness”. But babies can only hear higher tones. According to Shannon their ability to hear lower pitches continues to develop until the age of 10. But that doesn’t mean that those with lower voices, including dads, shouldn’t sing.

Social interactions, like singing, can help with emotional self-regulation. The better mothers can help with regulation, the better infants will respond, which Shannon says helps grow attachment – long term connections which develop over the first year of life.

To help this, mothers need to be aware of what state their child is in and modify their singing accordingly. When a baby is content and playful Shannon recommends singing a rhythmic song to keep the interaction going while a soothing, loving tone of voice can help calm a cranky child.

And it doesn’t matter what a mother sings, just as long as she sings. “She can sing the phone book. She can sing her grocery list,” she says. “As long as she’s singing in a way that acknowledges the infant’s state… that is soothing if the infant is distressed, that is rhythmic if the infant is playful; as long as there is that match that’s all that’s important.”

Music Therapy professor Shannon de l'Etoile

Music Therapy professor Shannon de l'Etoile Photo: Supplied

For babies that are in distress, singing a rhythmic, playful song can help even though it might be seen counter-intuitive. “Singing a play song that is very active is far more effective at getting that infant’s attention and reducing arousal,” she says.

Babies with disabilities also react positively to mothers singing. Shannon has spent time studying infants with Down Syndrome and found that at times it’s harder for them to shift their attention from one thing to another. “An infant with Down Syndrome needs a little more time to process whatever event, object or stimulus has their attention,” she says. “A lot of patience and repetition is really important.”

Not only do babies benefit from singing, but mothers do too. According to Plunket, 13 percent of new mothers will experience post-natal depression in the first year of their child’s life and Shannon’s research has found singing helps.

Mothers with depression are more likely to sing at a higher tempo, without slowing down or modulating key, but infants still really like it. Shannon sees singing as a therapeutic intervention that helps reinforce mothers are doing a good job parenting. “Mothers could be encouraged more to use singing and that would also empower them to feel more effective as parents because many times a mother who’s depressed does not feel very confident in her ability to care for her infant,” she says. “Mothers do not need musical training to do this skill well. It’s about paying attention to what they see in the infant and being sensitive to that.

“A mother doesn’t have to know 200 songs, if she could think of three or five songs… and be singing those in different ways… then she’s good to go.”

Recorded music can also be helpful but Shannon says live face-to-face interaction is the way to go. “Recordings stay the same, but mothers singing is more flexible and dynamic,” she says.

Singing is something the whole family can do. Shannon encourages fathers to sing, and she says babies sing too. “Babies do sing. They vocalise; attempting to imitate the oral movement they see their mothers making and their mother’s facial expressions,” she says. “In early vocal behaviours at four to six months there’s a lot of exploratory vocal play and it has a very musical quality to it.

“In fact, their early vocalisations will sound far more like singing... than speaking.”