Surprising Findings on the Benefits of Singing to Infants

Graham Strahle
| July 17, 2017

It seems universally accepted that the soothing sound of lullabies and nursery rhymes is helpful in settling infants and toddlers. But does singing to one’s child actually bring provable benefits in terms of increasing parent-child bonding, enhancing the child’s emotional wellbeing, and even boosting cognitive development? What does the science say?

Three new studies have appeared this year that came up with surprising results while supporting some generally held views on the subject.

A paper published in Women and Birth (journal of the Australian College of Midwives) tells how researchers from the School of Medicine and Surgery, University of Milano Bicocca, studied 168 pregnant women with the aim of finding out what effect singing had on their babies from antenatal stage up to three months old. They found that singing to unborn babies has no provable benefit in increasing maternal-infant bonding. However, the results were different for newborns: they discovered that singing reduced crying and colic, helped them sleep through the night, and increased bonding. They also found it reduced maternal stress.

Another study investigating cognitive development, conducted by Shannon de l’Etoile of the University of Miami Frost School of Music, concluded that singing to an infant, reading stories and playing with toys were all far more effective in achieving high cognitive scores than listening to recorded music.

Perhaps the most interesting paper comes from Harvard University’s Samuel Mehr and Max Krasnow. Entitled ‘Parent-offspring conflict and the evolution of infant-directed song’ and published in Evolution and Human Behavior, it investigates whether infant-directed song has an adaptive basis. The authors discuss a range of possible evolutionary reasons why infants show “impressive musical abilities” from birth, including the ability to discern and predict downbeats in rhythm, perceive pitch contours and remember melody, and move spontaneously to music.

Mehr and Krasnow theorise that it is not so much the singing itself as the attention being shown towards the infant during singing that is of central importance from an evolutionary point of view. Singing can signal to the baby that the parent is giving them their full, undivided attention. This is vitally needed in hunter-gather societies, in which parental attention may be limited. Hence it acquires an adaptive value.

“Parents adjust their singing in real time, by altering the melody, rhythm, tempo, timbre of their singing, adding hand motions, bouncing, touching, and facial expressions, and so on,” Mehr explains. “All of these features can be finely tuned to the baby’s affective state — or not. The match or mismatch between baby behavior and parent singing could be informative for whether or not the parent is paying attention to the infant.”

The wealth of communicative gesture contained in infant-directed song might in turn explain the development of music as a cultural artefact, they theorise.

“Let’s assume for a moment that the theory is right. How, then, did we get from lullabies to Duke Ellington?” Mehr goes on to say. “The evolution of music must be a complex, multistep process, with different features developing for different reasons. Our theory raises the possibility that infant-directed song is the starting point for all that, with other musical behaviors either developing directly via natural selection, as byproducts of infant-directed song, or as byproducts of other adaptations.”

So we have here an evolutionary model that not only explains the purpose of lullabies, but also for why they might serve as a blueprint for musical culture across human society. It’s an intriguing idea.

Anita Collins, assistant professor of Music and Arts Education at the University of Canberra, is another acknowledged researcher in the area of infant-directed song. She says that babies are born with a remarkably well-developed sense of hearing and the capacity to respond to lullabies because this allows them to recognise their caregivers’ voices and form emotional bonds. Collins spoke about this in a recent ABC Radio show called ‘The Lullaby Effect’; it can be heard here.

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