Why Mothers Sing to Their Babies

Singing is just as effective as reading a book or playing with a toy at maintaining infant attention.Singing is just as effective as reading a book or playing with a toy at maintaining infant attention.

A mother singing to her baby is such a normal event that most people give the subject little thought. But why do mothers do it, and what can we learn from it? 

Singing to babies is something that happens across most cultures and has, quite possibly, been happening for thousands of years. Why?

Shannon de l’Etoile, professor of music therapy at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, FL, set out to investigate.

Although the impact of music on the developing brain is not fully understood, she said: “We know from previous research that infants have the innate ability to process music in a sophisticated manner.”

We also know that a mother’s song to her infant has characteristics that set it apart from other types of singing. For instance, it has a high starting pitch and increased gliding between pitch levels. A mother’s song also has sustained vowel sounds and a variety in amplitude not heard in general singing.

“I set out to identify infant behaviors in response to live infant-directed singing compared to other common maternal interactions such as reading books and playing with toys. One of the main goals of the research was to clarify the meaning of infant-directed singing as a human behavior and as a means to elicit unique behavioral responses from infants.”

Her study also aimed to investigate the role of infant-directed singing in developing the bond between a mother and her child.

To begin, the researcher filmed 70 infants’ responses to six different types of interaction.

  Better Focused

This investigation found that singing was just as effective as reading a book or playing with a toy at maintaining infant attention. Additionally, singing held the infant’s attention much better than recorded music.

“Findings revealed that when infants were engaged during song, their mother’s instincts are also on high alert. Intuitively, when infant engagement declined, the mother adjusted her pitch, tempo, or key to stimulate and regulate infant response.”

The results were published in the journal Arts in Psychotherapy, reported.

 De l’Etoile concluded: “Mothers around the world sing to their infants in remarkably similar ways, and infants prefer these specialized songs,” she says. In fact, infants may be drawn to the personalized tempo and pitch of their mother, which encourage them to direct their gaze toward [her] and ultimately communicate through this gaze.

As research continues, the interactions between mother and child and the importance of each modality will become clearer. For now, mothers can be encouraged that when they sing to their child, they are continuing a practice that is shared globally and stretches back into the mists of time.

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