Is it, is music the key to getting your baby to sleep: the question we’ve all been searching for?

The elusive question all new parents want the answer to: how to get the baby to sleep and stay asleep! Well, music may well be the key to getting your baby to sleep. Read on to find out the secrets and science behind how music can help you and your baby to soothe, calm, rest and sleep.

From before your baby is born they start to recognise your voice. Foetal hearing develops around 17 weeks gestation and by the third trimester baby recognises both your voice and that of your partner.  Unlike historically, when we thought Mum’s voice sounded like it was coming through a swimming pool, we now know this is not the case. Mum’s voice travels internally down the spine and to her baby very clearly, so this is an already familiar and comforting sound for baby once they are born. From birth a baby can recognise their Mum’s voice in a room full of people and they are more interested in listening to Mum than any other voices. Meaning hearing mum’s singing voice could well soothe baby to sleep.

mum baby smile happy

This is great as it means that baby is wired to listen when Mum speaks. Even better is that babies show a preference for their mothers singing over her speaking (Nakata, T & Trehub, S 2004.) meaning no matter whether you like the sound of your voice or not baby loves it. Specifically baby loves to hear you sing. This singing could be face to face with baby or as you go about your day so they can hear you in another room. Singing to your baby can not only comfort them but can will increase the chances of soothing them to sleep. As well as these benefits for baby, singing also increases your oxytocin levels so will keep you calm even if you’ve had a fractious few hours getting to this point. 

How does this help my baby get to sleep?

When we sing face to face and maintain eye contact with baby the benefits are endless. Firstly they have you; their favourite person all to themselves! You are their whole world and to them this is bliss. This focussed attention does wonders for their development and your attachment to each other as well. Trollalden talks about the need for sound, gesture and movement for “recognition” to occur. That is, speaking or singing to baby alone isn’t enough. But that’s not a problem as we rarely sing to a baby without moving with them or using our hands to make some mimes or signs to accompany the song. All of these natural interactions enable baby to recognise you as their parent and soothe their unease. 

The “to and fro” between you might feel silly to watch, but it usually comes quite naturally to the parent involved. By watching your mouth move in this close connection their cognitive and emotional worlds are developing, not to mention their language acquisition from this co-interaction. We naturally talk to babies in a sing-song voice, also known as infant-directed speech or “motherease”. When talking to a baby it is almost impossible to hold “normal” patterns of speech. We automatically change the pitch, timbre and rhythm of our voices and emphasise certain words. This enables them to begin to understand speech and communication with others. But at this early stage we aren’t trying to teach them to talk, we are just attuning our speech to their emotions and allowing them to understand our meaning.

Think of a “conversation” you’ve had with your little one recently. Did you exaggerate your feelings through your tine of voice? Eg. *in a soft gentle voice* “Now it’s time for bed my darling. Time to gooo tooo sleep.” You might naturally speak in a calmer, quieter, deeper voice than daytime chats. You’ll probably naturally elongate some of your words. Think about this in contrast to a daytime interaction where you might speak in a higher more sing-song tone “Mummy’s sooo HAPPY that you slept in your crib last night. Yes I am!” When having a similar conversation with an adult your happiness would be less blatant, although they would understand from your words and body language the true emotion you felt. Babies need this extra change in our voices to understand what we mean and to learn more about human feelings, interactions and socialising.

Let your Little One join in the Conversation too.

It’s important to note this isn’t just about Mum singing or talking to baby, but equally important is baby “talking” back to their parent and the parent responding. Watching your baby for cues is a great way to get to know them and their needs, as well as making sure they feel safe and secure in this new world. When they recognise their face and sounds in yours it helps to create a sense of self for them, and this deepens their attachment and self-security. This picture (below) from the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in NZ is a wonderful depiction of exactly that.  

By holding them close and engaging in shared “conversation” baby feels safe and calm. Their emotional needs are being met and they are confident to explore or drift off to sleep. So while you might not want to be engaging baby in chit-chat at 3am, rest assured in the knowledge that your daytime “conversations” are helping them to sleep feeling secure and loved. 

This picture was created by Bronwyn Leigh & illustrated by Jess Racklyeft and is from the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in New Zealand. It was created for their “Speaking for the Baby campaign” as part of Infant Mental Health Awareness Week 2018.
If all of that wasn’t enough there are still more reasons why music is key to getting your baby to sleep.

As well as the face to face, vocal recognition and brain development already going on, the physical contact you are giving your little one is another important part to this calming and close interaction. Close contact does so many amazing things for babies. It reduces stress and stress hormones (cortisol), conserves heat and energy as well as promoting oxytocin, endorphins (those happy hormones) and … sleep. Yes you read it right: physical touch promotes sleep in babies. No wonder why they want to always sleep on or next to you!

Plus have you tried singing to a baby and not touching , lifting or swaying them? It’s almost impossible because our bodies are designed to combine music with movement. Physical touch also has benefits for you: It reduces maternal anxiety and promotes more efficient mothering: it connects you to each other and heightens your instinctive reactions to their needs, as well as being very effective for breastfeeding initiation and long term breastfeeding success.

Convinced about the power of music yet?

And finally, if all of the above wasn’t enough to convince you yet then how about this: singing soothes you, the tired, sleep-stressed parent, which is never a bad thing when there’s a screaming infant around. The act of singing has been proven to increase endocannabinoid concentrations in the body. In English this means the euphoric feeling you get after a good run or dancing with your friends gives a similar hormonal release in the body. This increase of positive mood in your body relaxes you into not worrying about time, how late it is or how little baby (and you) may have slept in the past 24 hours. We all now how good it can feel to sing along to a song you love, so pop the radio on quietly and sing along.

Taking all that we know from our ancestors and their ways of managing life’s stressors we also can be certain that singing eases hard labour. Think of slaves working in the fields and the work songs they created. The rhythmic and driving feel of the song kept the workers moving, whilst baring their souls and singing from their pain. The repetitive nature and the easy melody make the songs easy to pick up and remember. This type of song no doubt had an impact on today’s nursery rhymes (in every culture and language), and their repetitive nature.  Considering this, it is no surprise then that singing to your wakeful baby in the middle of the night can ease your pain (exhaustion) and motivate you to keep going.  The act of music making generates feelings of happiness, even when the event is sad (think of funerals).

Just sing, sing, sing!

So, if you’re reading this at 11pm, 3 or 4am and you’ve tried EVERYTHING, have you tried music to get your baby to sleep yet? A nursery rhyme, your favourite pop song, a musical, that jingle you’ve had stuck in your head, or something you’ve remembered at the back of your brain from your own childhood. Pick them up, look at their face and give it a go, it might just be the thing you’ve been missing.

If you still need convincing or if you’re looking for something to sing along to why not download our free Sleep EP: a four track release created to support tired little ones and their exhausted parents to a calm and peaceful sleep. Sweet dreams.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for your comment Aaren. All the photos we use here are either taken from unsplash: where photos are available to download and use, or have been taken for us by photographers we work with.

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