The science of why lullabies are proven to help babies sleep.
Few babies can resist the slow, sweet tones of a song sung by their parent, even if that parent is completely tone-deaf. But why?
Many parents remember the sleepless nights where an infant or newborn simply won’t sleep – no amount of rocking, walking, feeding, kissing, diaper-changing, or normal soothing will do the trick. So the tone-deaf mother or father starts to sing or hum a lullaby as a last resort. After a few moments of fussing, baby stops… listens… relaxes… and by the time the melody is done, the little one is asleep in their parent’s arms.
Lullabies are found and sung across the globe – some of the oldest songs on record are lullabies, which attests to their effectiveness. Even modern studies corroborate that effects of music on babies’ brains are enormous: even after just a few months after birth, babies can hear and understand music using specialized areas of their brain. So the importance of music to babies is hard-wired from the early days.
But what, specifically, about lullabies helps the little ones sleep?
Singing a lullaby, most importantly, creates a calming bedtime atmosphere. It does this in a couple of ways: first, the soothing music helps babies focus on something calming and soothing instead of the thing that’s upsetting them. Then, the lullaby becomes part of a routine, which further stimulates good sleep health.
From the time spent in utero, babies learn to associate the sound of their mother’s voice (and they can distinguish their mother’s voice from the voices of other women!) with the feeling of safety, calm, and comfort. So even if the baby can’t understand the lullaby’s words, the fact that it’s their mama singing a gentle song, rocking them, and the room is quiet except for the singing… all those factors combined convey the feelings of comfort, safety, and quiet. Exactly how you’d want to feel when going to sleep.
Creating that bedtime atmosphere regularly also instills a routine for baby’s bedtime. When lullabies are sung to babies before they go to sleep, it becomes part of their sleep routine. So whenever they hear those soft, gentle songs that they associate with sleep, their brains instinctively prepare to relax and get ready for bed.
In addition, lullabies can create a stronger connection between a parent and their baby. When a parent sings a lullaby (not halfheartedly, but truly, calmly, and when the parent isn’t trying to rush through the song so they can get back to sleep), oxytocin can be released. Yeah, that oxytocin – the one that causes moms to bond instantly to their newborn babies. The “love hormone”.
The stronger the bond between the parent and their baby, the more comfortable the baby is likely to feel in their presence, especially when it’s time to go to sleep. They are more likely to relax in the presence of someone with whom they spend a lot of time and with whom they feel safe while awake.
And if helping them go to sleep wasn’t enough, lullabies have even more benefits for babies. Lullabies, even when babies don’t understand the words, stimulate language and cognitive development, improve memory, improve focus, and can even help teach concepts (once they’re older).