COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR BABY THROUGH MUSIC
Note: This article was published, citation information below.
Ang, M. (2005). Communicating With Your Baby Through Music. In Children's Music Portal Early Childhood articles section.
Every mommy knows that gently singing or humming helps baby to drift off to sleep. Playing just the right kind of soft music does the trick as well. Lively, interesting music does wonders with a fussing baby strapped into a car seat – I’m amazed at how my four-month old can abruptly transform an intense screwed-up I’m-about-to-bawl expression (all you parents know exactly which one I mean!) into a sudden wide toothless grin and chuckle when she hears a piece of music she likes start to play on the car stereo.
Babies are born to instinctively respond to music. This isn’t surprising if you realize that the sense of hearing is one of the first senses to develop, from the age of 20 weeks while still in mommy’s tummy! [1,2]. Human beings respond to music physically, emotionally and intellectually. Brain research has shown that music possessing certain characteristics induces the brain to produce certain brainwaves associated with certain states of mind. . For example, music that is simple, slow and soft, without sudden increases in volume or change of speed, can lull the mind to sleep through inducing the production of delta brainwaves associated with the state of sleep. That’s why lullabies help baby to fall asleep.
At the earliest stages, baby’s response to music may be purely physical – a response to the energy levels and patterns transmitted by the different types of music – an instinctive, felt response, indicated by scientific findings  that foetal heart rates steadied and kicking lessened when pregnant mothers were exposed to music by Mozart and Vivaldi, while rock music caused foetuses to kick violently instead! Pretty soon though, this response extends to an emotional one as well – baby can sense mommy’s (or daddy’s) mood through their tone of voice – if you’re angry, baby can “feel” it through hearing; if you’re happy, baby can feel that too. Baby may not understand the words at this point, but your tone can make a whole lot of difference as to whether or not baby’s potential sob turns into a smile. Add music to that, in the form of singing instead of just talking, and there you have it – an instant entertainment centre for baby in the form of mommy (or daddy!). I use this approach with my baby all the time and it almost never fails to bring out the laughs (the only time it fails is if she’s genuinely hungry or uncomfortable).
Babies generally understand more than adults think they do, and can certainly understand lots of speech before they can actually talk themselves. Experts in child development advocate talking with and reading to your baby as often as possible to develop baby’s language skills. Singing is definitely one of the very effective ways of communicating with your baby using words. Baby is born knowing and loving mommy’s voice – after all, mommy’s voice is the most familiar sound, the only close-proximity sound that baby still hears from those cosy days back in the womb! It doesn’t matter how mommy sounds to the rest of the world, to your own baby you are the very best singer in the whole wide world!
FUN IDEAS ON COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR BABY THROUGH SINGING
In writing this article, I was “forced” to think of a systematic approach to presenting what we (me and my own baby) do naturally, as a matter of course. This excellent motivation made me realize that our communication through singing can actually be divided into three different approaches.
The first is to sing actual songs, usually only sections of the song short enough to capture baby’s full attention. I always choose songs that say the words I want my baby to hear from me, so you could say I am very particular about lyrics. If the words almost fit what I want to say to her but not quite, I just change the words to suit us both ? When she was younger we used more lullabies and slow, soft songs (most of my own songs actually – I don’t agree with the lyrics of “Rock a Bye Baby”, LOL), but as she gets older with lots more “awake” time, faster catchy songs have become her staple – usually used during diaper-changing time! Our current favourite (these change rapidly, babies like variety) is: “Sugar pie, honey bunch, you know I love you, can’t help myself, I love you and nobody else!” This became an instant hit the moment we heard it again recently on American Idol – it helped that I’d already been calling her “honey bun” for ages before that!
Our second approach is to use made up songs using only one or two short sentences based on any particular thing I want to teach her about at the moment. We do this during her wakeful activity time. For example, teaching her to know her own name – our lyrics are simple: “You are Bethany, Bethany is your name, you are Bethany, Bethany is your name.” The chorus just repeats her name over and over and over, ending with “Bethany is your name”. Don’t worry about the tune; just use any tune that comes to mind. If you can’t make up your own little tune, just borrow any catchy tune that fits in with your baby’s name. And each time you sing, use new tunes. It’s the repetition of the words that helps baby learn what you’re saying. You can make up similar simple songs about anything under the sun. Rhyming is easy, just repeat your sentences – remember, you’re not out to win a song writing contest, you’re out to talk to your baby through song.
The third thing I always do is to put her on my lap or my knee, make up lively little “nonsense songs” that have no lyrics, using instead whatever combination of spontaneous babbling that happens to come out of my mouth (sort of like scat singing I guess, just not as sophisticated), and bounce her around with the rhythm of the song. This is easier than you might think (for those of you who think that sounds hard). If you don’t know where to start, just imitate your baby! Babies babble all the time, mine always chuckles and giggles when she hears mommy do the same ?
MOVING WITH YOUR BABY TO MUSIC
We’ve just talked about bouncing baby around in time with your own singing. You can cook up simple movements that go with your made up lyrics as well. For example, when I want to teach her about her feet, I might sing (to any random tune) “These are Bethany’s feet, Bethany’s got two feet, one two Bethany’s feet, Bethany’s got two feet” or something like that. While I sing the lyrics, I sit her on my lap and move her feet in rhythm, gently with my hands, according to the lyrics of the song. Sometimes I lay flat on my back and put her on my tummy, and then we cook up a song such as “Bethany’s on a horse, Bethany’s on a horse, Bethany’s on a horse, and the horse moves up and down”. Other verses include an elephant that moves side to side and a camel that moves back to front. Of course the movement must match the song. ?. You can even inject a jab of fun into something as simple as burping your baby by patting her (gently of course!) in a rhythmic groove.
Another thing to do is to play your favourite lively music CD/MP3/whatever and to “dance” your baby using your hands to guide her through simple hand or feet movements in rhythm with the music while seated on your lap. Of course it’s also loads of fun to literally pick up your youngest dance partner and waltz around the room. The important thing when doing any of these activities is to make sure your baby’s enjoying herself and the music you choose. Remember, your favourite music may not be hers, so observe her reactions. Babies generally don’t respond well to music that is overly loud, too intense or harsh. Also, watch for signs of tiredness – babies don’t have too long an attention span either, so if her attention wanders, it’s probably time to stop.
HELPING BABY TO FALL ASLEEP WITH MUSIC
We’ve already mentioned that it’s the most natural thing in the world for mommy to sing or hum baby to sleep. For me, if I’m singing, the words matter a great deal. You may argue that baby probably wouldn’t suffer any emotional harm if mommy sings “when the bough breaks the cradle will fall and down will come baby, cradle and all”, after all baby can’t understand the words and even if she could…
Speaking from a purely personal point of view, my own first memory is of my mom singing me to sleep (and that was a LONG time ago!). I don’t know if she always sang the same song, I’m not even sure how old I was at the time, all I do know is that I wasn’t yet able to move and had to lie there in the crib looking up at her face while she sang. Guess what? Until today I can clearly recall her voice and the words of the song she sang (a traditional Indian lullaby – I don’t understand the language today but can still “hear” her clearly in my memory).
So I’m sure I want my little girl to grow up with positive memories of what I sang to her. If you can’t make up your own, there are plenty of excellent modern day lullaby albums available from which you can learn songs suitable for serenading your little one on his or her way to dreamland. Then again, simple humming is often good enough, too. The main thing is the gentle, musical sound of a loving parent’s voice, enveloping baby with that sense of security and comfort so she can fall asleep knowing everything’s ok because mommy (or daddy) is there.
There are also times when I’d rather not make a sound myself. This is when I’ve found the right kind of recorded music invaluable. Besides the obvious lullaby albums, I’ve also found Baroque music, especially those featuring the classical guitar or harp, useful in creating the right ambience at bedtime and naptime. The important thing here is to have a selection of music that is either at a constant soft volume and “busyness” or one that gets progressively softer, slower or sparser in its arrangement. I’ve found that change is the single most disruptive factor when playing music to help baby fall asleep by – this includes changes in volume (so you have to be careful with pieces that have sudden loud sections or even a single sudden loud chord in them), changes in tempo or speed (except for getting progressively slower, which is fine), changes in timbre (introduction of a completely new and different sounding instrument often wakes baby up in my experience!), and changes in texture (a sparse arrangement suddenly changing to a complex one also often jars a sleeping baby).
You don’t have to be a musician to communicate with your baby using music. The ideas we’ve touched on in this article are easy for any parent to carry out. Relax, have fun, enjoy your baby, with music to enrich the vocabulary of your communication.