It’s 3 a.m. and I’m sitting on the edge of my bed attached to a pump. My three-day-old shirt is stained with spit-up and milk and I’m falling over with exhaustion. I look over to see my husband cradling our newborn in his arms and gently singing to him as they stroll around the room. I can’t help but wonder—why am I not singing to the baby? Why do they look so idyllically in love, like a Leonardo Da Vinci painting, while I wait for the minutes to go by?
As a therapist, I went into parenting knowing what I was supposed to strive for. Attachment theory teaches us that it’s the quality of the connection with the caregiver that has the biggest impact on a baby’s cognitive, social and emotional development. But knowing is one thing. Feeling it is another.
Movies led me to believe that the minute my baby would be placed in my arms I’d feel a magical and undeniable connection with him. But it didn't go that way for me. I mean, I loved him from the start. I felt fully devoted to helping him thrive in the best way I could. But it took months until I fell in love.
Music was our meeting point
Remember how we yearned for love in our twenties? We were like sunbathers, just waiting for the clouds to part so we could feel the warmth of the sun wash over us. But falling in love only happens when we’re ready and open to it, and when we can tolerate letting go of that little bit of control we desperately try to hold on to.
I know firsthand; I held on for dear life. The over-achiever in me obsessed over my baby’s schedule, the amount of milk he was eating, and how many minutes he slept, as if mastering those details would make me the great mother I wanted to be. But in the meantime I forgot to relax and take in the sun.
What finally helped me connect with my infant? Music.
Music, and specifically singing, was our meeting point. When I sang to my baby, his eyes focused on me, his body stilled and his reflux calmed. He’d stop to listen as if he knew we were in conversation. Singing took me beyond the technical tasks of caring for a baby and opened me up to the relationship that was developing between us.
There’s plenty of research to explain why music unlocked our connection. Babies respond to music from day one. Sandra E. Trehub, a music psychologist, found that babies remain calm for twice as long when they hear sung music as opposed to speech.
Parental singing has a huge effect on preterm infants’ well being, improving their heart and respiratory rate and causing better sleep.
The singing was just as beneficial for me. Studies show that when we engage in music, people feel a stronger desire to connect. Singing helps mothers feel more open to bonding with their babies. And it’s relaxing! Singing reduces cortisol and releases endorphins, making us feel less stressed and happier. The reason I felt closer to my son when I sang to him is because we were both calmer and more open to each other.
You’d think that as a music therapist I should have known all this. But postnatal depression comes in all forms and degrees, and during those early months, I couldn’t find the music within myself.
So many of us can’t for different reasons. Singing can make us feel extremely vulnerable. Often we’ve been told at some point in our lives to stop singing, or we grew up in an environment where it wasn’t natural to break out in song.
How to find your voice
Once I found my connection to my baby through music, I set out to help other parents do the same. Now, after 12 years of working with parents—and many songs—later I find that these tips help parents get started with bonding through singing:
- Keep it private if you need to. Nobody needs to hear you but your baby. It can be your secret.
- Your baby thinks you’re a rockstar. They want to hear YOU sing more than anyone else. Beyonce? Ed Sheeran? Adele? Your baby wants to hear you more.
- Start with a lullaby. A lullaby is the most effective way to calm your baby and cue them for sleep. If you start now, within a few months they’ll be yawning at the sound of your lullaby. It will also be a way to deeply connect before separation and will help your baby fall asleep more calmly.
- Sing along with music. One way to gain confidence is to put on a song and sing along with it while looking into your baby’s eyes. Practice makes perfect.
- Go to a music class. Many parents come to my classes not wanting to sing at all. But within a few meetings in a non-judgmental environment they realize how much their baby responds to singing and how effective it is for soothing.
- Narrate in song. It might feel silly to talk to your baby about what you're doing, but it feels a lot less silly when you do it in song. You can use a melody that exists or make one up. It doesn’t need to win a Grammy.
I remember the moment I realized I had fallen in love with my baby. Only then did I understand the difference between loving and being in love. The shift was so profound that it inspired a new career and many songs. One chorus goes like this: “You know I feel just like the sun must feel with its rays trying to hug all the people.” I wrote it when I not only felt like the sunbather, but the sun itself, shining my love onto my baby.