Menu

Singing to your baby is great for their brain development, says new study

And it doesn’t even matter if you’re off-key. 

Singing to your baby is great for their brain development, says new study

I used to love singing to my now-toddler son when he was a baby. I would rock him back and forth in my arms and croon to him as he drifted off into dreamland. I would even make up my own lullabies. Singing was—and still is—my favorite way to communicate with him.


Of course, I am not the only mother who loves belting out a tune for their baby. And now research shows us the benefits of those mama-led lullabies.

A new study presented at the 25th annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society on Tuesday found that lullabies not only comfort both mama and baby, but they can also benefit an infant’s cognitive development. Particularly, these songs can increase a little one’s attention and displays of positive emotion toward their mamas.

“Infant brains must be able to track auditory events in a predictive manner to make sense of music,” says study author Laura Cirelli, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. "Music is a tool that we can use to bring people together, and this starts in infancy."

For the study, the research team, led by Cirelli, analyzed the ways in which mamas sing to their babies depending on their end-goal: To soothe or to play. The moms who participated in the study would sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” repeatedly to their little one, alternating between a joyful tone and a calming one.

The researchers measured both mom and baby’s arousal responses through behavior and skin conductance—a phenomenon where the skin becomes a temporary conduit of electricity as a response to external or internal stimuli.

What they found is arousal levels decreased for mom and baby when mama sang soothing lullabies. But arousal levels only increased for mamas when they used a more playful tone while crooning to their infants. The babies, on the other hand, paid more attention to their mothers and displayed more positive emotions, but had stable arousal levels, according to the findings.

"We are seeing relationships between rhythm and language abilities, attention, development, hearing acuity, and even social interactions,” says study co-author Jessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist and associate professor at the University of Western Ontario. “Every sensation we have or action we make on the world unfolds over time, and we are now beginning to understand why humans are sensitive to certain types of patterns in time, but not others."

These findings, though, are not surprising. Previous research has found that singing can have a tremendous impact on how babies interact with their parents and the world.

Cirelli’s new research builds off of her past work studying how music and rhythm impacts behavior and social interactions. One study, published in 2015 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, found that people became more socially connected when moving in sync to music.

The results were replicated in another study, published in Infancy in 2016. In that study, 14-month-old infants who were bounced in sync with unfamiliar adults were more helpful towards those adults than babies who bounced out of sync.

What’s more: Two Harvard Medical School researchers found that singing lullabies to infants evolved as a way to calm wailing or fussy babies. Infant-directed songs also allow parents to signal their attention to their little ones, reassuring their babies that they will be kept safe, according to their research.

Speaking to The Harvard Gazette, Max Krasnow, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, says, “Infant-directed song has a lot of these costs built in. I can’t be singing to you and be talking to someone else. It’s unlikely I’m running away, because I need to control my voice to sing. You can tell the orientation of my head even without looking at me; you can tell how far away I am even without looking.”

Singing is a powerful tool of motherhood, and now mamas have the research to prove that it has long-lasting benefits on their development. So keep carrying that tune, mama, even if you’re off-key, because your baby’s listening and they love every moment of it.

You might also like:

This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades, "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4-year-old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year:

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keep an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Follow children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

5 brilliant products that encourage toddler independence

Help your little one help themselves.

One of our main goals as mothers is to encourage our children to learn, grow and play. They start out as our tiny, adorable babies who need us for everything, and somehow, before you know it, they grow into toddlers with ideas and opinions and desires of their own.

You may be hearing a lot more of "I do it!" or maybe they're pushing your hand away as a signal to let you know, I don't need your help, Mama. That's okay. They're just telling you they're ready for more independence. They want to be in charge of their bodies, and any little bit of control their lives and abilities allow.

So, instead of challenging your toddler's desire for autonomy, we found five of our favorite products to help encourage independence—and eliminate frustration in the process.

EKOBO Bamboo 4-piece kid set

EKOBO bamboo 4-piece kid set

This colorful set includes a plate, cup, bowl and spoon and is just right for your child's meal experience. Keep them in an easy-to-reach cabinet so they'll feel encouraged (and excited!) to get their own place setting each time they eat.

$25

Puj PhillUp hangable kids cups

Puj PhillUp hangable kids cups

Before you know it, your little one will be asking (okay, maybe demanding) to fill their own water cups. This amazing 4-pack of cups attaches directly to the fridge (or any glass, metal, tile or fiberglass surface) making it easier for your child to grab a cup themselves. Just be sure a water pitcher or dispenser is nearby, and—boom!—one task off your plate.

$29

Wise Elk puzzle tower blocks

Wise Elk puzzle tower blocks

These beautiful blocks, made from sustainably-sourced wood and water-based, non-toxic, lead-free paint, will keep your little one focused on their creation while they're also busy working on their fine-motor skills. The puzzle design will encourage patience as your kiddo creates their own building, fitting one block in after the next.

$18

Lorena Canals basket

Lorena Canals Basket

This *gorgeous* braided cotton basket is the perfect, accessible home for their blocks (and whatever else you want to hide away!) so your kiddo can grab them (and clean them up) whenever their heart desires.

$29

BABYBJÖRN step stool

BABYBJ\u00d6RN Step Stool

Your kiddo might be ready to take on the world, but they might need an extra boost to do so—cue, a step stool! An easy-to-move lightweight stool is the must-have confidence-boosting tool you need in your home so your growing tot can reach, well... the world.

$20

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Shop

I have two kids—and I think I'm done

The idea of "more," making more money, obtaining more things—and in my case, creating more life—is not necessarily the ticket to a happier life.

I met my best friend Katie in fifth grade and one of our most favorite games to play was MASH. Our future fates would be decided by one "magic number" where one of us counted the rings on a spiral circle after the other screamed STOP as loud as humanly possible. "Future Husband" and "Number of Children" were clearly our two favorite categories. I remember my "magic combination," and it was marrying Mel Gibson plus having four kids.

And my plan was to do all of this by the time I reached 27. Getting married and having children would be the ultimate climax of life. At the age of nine, the pressure was on to best prepare for the long climb to the top.

Keep reading Show less
Life