Singing to baby: Study shows nursery rhymes help development


The true value of music

We all know how much babies and young kids love music – The Wiggles is a testament to that, as are the many nursery rhymes still doing the circuit despite being around for hundreds of years. But it’s only recently that research has begun to reveal why music is so effective and exactly how it can help the developing brains of young children.

Selena Cheyne, Registered Music Therapist, agrees that the real benefits of music are only just being confirmed by researchers. “Studies are revealing that music activates all different areas of the brain,” she says. “So for a developing brain, it’s going to open up neural pathways and help with cognitive and speech development.” As such, music therapy is increasingly being used to help children with special needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum. But a recent study has demonstrated similar positive effects in the area of emotional development, this time in babies.

Singing keeps babies calm

As the true value of music is becoming more recognised, singing in particular is being noted for its positive effects on infants. A recent study from the University of Montreal found that babies remained calm for longer when listening to singing, compared with listening to a regular speaking voice or a voice that used baby-talk. This was the case even when the singing voice was unfamiliar and even when the song was in another language. What all this means is that babies were able to regulate their emotions better when listening to a singing voice.

So, what is it about the singing voice that has such a remarkable impact on babies? It’s all about the rhythms and patterns within music. When you think about it, your baby’s earliest beginnings were based on rhythm: your heartbeat represented a non-stop rhythmical beat that your baby slept, ate and played along with. It makes perfect sense that music should continue to have a positive effect on them when they are born.

It also demonstrates why repetitive songs like nursery rhymes (and those Wiggles songs) are so effective with babies and kids. “Nursery rhymes typically feature a lot of repetition and natural rhythm,” says Selena. “They tend to start and finish in a predictable way. It’s even been suggested that many nursery rhymes match the natural speed of the heartbeat, which makes them very calming for babies.”
Singing has many benefits

Apart from helping with emotional development, singing with babies and young kids offers plenty of other benefits, including:

1. Development of language skills

Singing encourages the expression of language, and many songs, particularly nursery rhymes, offer a different set of vocabulary to that we use in everyday speech around our kids. This means they’re going to be exposed to a wider variety of words that can enrich their vocabulary skills.

2. Early teachings about melody

Singing to our kids offers a general introduction to music and melody, although Selena points out that their noisy beginnings in the womb mean that all babies are innately musical to some extent. This makes them primed and ready to go when it comes to introducing new melodies to them.

3. The power of real connection

While conversation with babies and kids is great for bonding, Selena says the connection made via singing is far more meaningful. “Singing offers a real connection between people because you tend to sing together, and not take it turns like you would in a conversation,” says Selena. Add some eye contact, physical touch and movement to the singing, and you have all the perfect ingredients for some beautiful bonding.

4. It ups the fun factor

Of course singing isn’t all about calming things down. It can also ramp up the fun factor, by adding songs to everyday activities – from cooking to tidying up, to driving in the car. It doesn’t matter if you can’t think of a song, either. You can use a sing-song voice for the most mundane of activities, like making sandwiches for lunch, says Selena.

5. It gets everyone moving

“Most children’s songs are action songs, which are so good for increasing fine motor skills and gross motor skills,” Selena points out. “Songs like Incy Wincy Spider and Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes help kids develop body awareness and physical coordination skills.”

6. It’s a great bedtime cue

Singing lullabies after a long day of parenting can have benefits for everyone at bedtime, says Selena, “especially if Mum or Dad is too tired to read books at the end of the day.” And for those frustrating bedtime hours, singing can help calm the atmosphere, she adds.

For parents who are doubtful of their singing capabilities and positive effect on their kids, Selena has an easy solution to help them begin their forage into singing. “Start with humming the song,” she says. “It’s great for babies, but it’s also really calming for parents. Humming calms the whole nervous system – that’s why they use it in yoga classes.” As for singing itself, Selena advises us not to be self-conscious. “Even if you’re off-pitch, your singing is still likely to be rhythmical, and that’s what counts the most.”

Selena Cheyne is a Registered Music Therapist with the Australian Music Therapy Association.

Karina is the founder of Mum Friday, a support service for mums with young families that provides help and guidance with all things motherhood. You can follow her on Facebook.