It’s midnight and my husband taps my shoulder. “He’s up. He’s calling for you.” Again? I want to stay tucked in my cozy cocoon of a bed, but I get out and walk to my five-year-old’s room.
“Mommy, I woke up and I need you to sing to me again.” There he sits, a teary mess, just needing another lullaby to get back to sleep. I’ve sang to him since the day I found out I was pregnant with him. Of course, I know he couldn’t hear me during the first 16 to 18 weeks of pregnancy, but I didn’t care. He was baby and it was my job to sing to him.
He always was my easiest child to get to sleep. I just sing and he starts to close his eyes. As much as I’d like to think I have magical singing abilities, I know that there’s much more to the science of lullabies.
Lullabies are scientifically proven to work, but why?
There’s a reason mothers softly sing to their babies, and it’s not because Granny told them to. It’s because they work. A study conducted by a doctoral student from the Université de Montréal proved the efficiency of lullabies. Her results showed an overwhelming support for the effectiveness of lullabies.
Lullabies help lull babies to sleep for three reasons: they help regulate the emotions of the baby or child, they work to foster a stronger bond between child and parent, and lullabies help establish a routine.
As a starting point, music helps regulate emotions of both children and adults. When a child is upset at bedtime (or in the case of my son, scared when he wakes up at midnight in the dark), it makes sense that a parent would turn to something to help control those emotions – transforming a negative emotion such as fear into a positive emotion.
Music can stimulate certain emotions through specific neural connections. This is why a recently-dumped individual might crank the sad music to help release all the pent-up feelings. This is also why a surgeon might listen to positive, pump-me-up music before or during a surgery.
Lullabies successfully create the emotional atmosphere necessary for a peaceful bedtime.
Neuroscience is behind this opportunity for bond-building, and it has to do with a little hormone known as oxytocin. Mothers might remember this hormone is as the “contraction hormone of labor” or the “breastfeeding hormone,” but it does pop up during lullaby-time as well. Oxytocin is released during singing. Song-induced oxytocin is important because oxytocin is also known as the hormone of love and the cuddle hormone. This is why it helps to build stronger bonds in a relationship.
Interestingly, oxytocin isn’t just released any time you sing. A half-hearted lullaby is less likely to stimulate oxytocin production so the parent must be intentionally singing and fully in the moment.
A stronger bond between parent and child makes a lullaby more successful in putting the child to sleep because the child is more likely to rest easy in the presence of someone they love and are bonded to.
Lullabies also work because they help establish a bedtime routine. Sleep experts constantly remind exhausted parents to establish a routine. Going through the same motions every night helps the child adjust from day to evening. These little events – whether a warm, lavender-scented bath or a cozy story time by the fireplace – all send signals to the child’s brain that bedtime is coming. When the child receives the clues, the child can accept the bedtime much easier.
Other benefits of singing lullabies to babies and children:
Because music is intimately linked to culture, it makes sense that lullabies are not confined to just one culture. Exploring the global span of lullabies has proven to shed light on both the individual culture as well as the universal relationship of mother and child.
Hands down my son’s favorite lullaby is an Irish lullaby, "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra." From the moment I brought his tiny body home from the hospital, it was our song. It’s a sweet ditty about the singer reminiscing about his own mother singing to him.
One of the most well-known lullabies has its roots in Germany. This is the Brahms lullaby, and it would be hard-pressed to find a home that doesn’t have at least one stuffed animal that can hum this tune out. The German lyrics can be found here.
"Arrorro Mi Niño" is a sweet Mexican lullaby. Unlike the familiar "Rock-a-bye, Baby" that puts unfortunate images of boughs breaking and babies crashing down, this song is much, much sweeter. In this one, the child's cradle is made of rose and jasmine and he's got milk and lovely scents all around him. I’d much rather imagine this scenario than a cradle in a wind-blown treetop!
A traditional lullaby, "Edo Komoriuta," is a soft song about a nanny who has crossed the mountains to her faraway village. However, the nanny just hasn’t up and left the boy. The singer lists all of the wonderful gifts that Nanny might bring back as gifts when she returns from her family’s village. The overall softness of the song is definitely conducive to falling easily into sleep.
Whether you sing a traditional lullaby or make up your own, give your child the gift of hearing your voice as their drift off to Dreamland.