Having trouble calming a fussy baby? You might want to try singing to your infant, according to a recent study. The research, published in the journal Infancy, found that babies who listened to singing – even if it was in a foreign language – stayed calmer longer than when they listened to adult speech or baby talk.
“Many studies have looked at how singing and speech affect infants’ attention, but we wanted to know how they affect a baby’s self-control,” senior author Isabelle Peretz, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal, said in a university news release. “Emotional self-control is obviously not developed in infants, and we believe singing helps babies and children develop this capacity,” added Peretz, who is also co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain Music and Sound Research (BRAMS).
To put their theory to the test, Peretz and her colleagues observed 30 healthy babies ages 6 to 9 months as they listened to adult speech, baby talk and singing, all recorded in Turkish so that the language and songs were unfamiliar to them.
“The performer sang Turkish play songs, not Western ones. This is an important as studies have shown that the songs we sing to infants have a specific range of tones and rhythms,” explained first author, Marieve Corbell, a doctoral student at BRAMS, in the news release.
To make sure the babies in the study were not affected by other stimuli, parents sat behind their infants so their facial expressions could not influence their child’s. In addition, recordings were used instead of a live performance to ensure “comparable performances for all children and no social interaction between performer and child.”
When the infants were calm, the researchers played the recordings until the infants displayed the tell-tale “cry face” – lowered brows, lip corners pulled to the side, mouth opened and raised cheeks – that signals distress. Findings showed that when listening to the Turkish songs, the babies remained calm for 9 minutes. Listening to speech they stayed calm for roughly half as long: adult speech was just under 4 minutes and baby talk a little over 4 minutes.
The researchers repeated the test with a different group of 6- to 9-month-old babies, but this time mothers not performers sang and talked to the babies in French, their native language. The test showed similar results, though the French songs kept the babies calm for 6 minutes instead of 9.
“Our findings leave little doubt about the efficacy of singing nursery rhymes for maintaining infants’ composure for an extended period of time,” Peretz said. “Even in the relatively sterile environment of the testing room – black walls, dim illumination, no toys, and no human or tactile stimulation – the sound of a woman singing prolonged infants’ positive and neutral states and inhibited stress,” she added.
According to Peretz, the new findings are important because Western mothers don’t sing to their babies nearly as often as they talk to them. The researchers also see their findings as being helpful to parents who struggle socioeconomically or emotionally.
“Although infant distress signals typically prompt parental comforting interventions, they induce frustration and anger in some at-risk parents, leading to insensitive responding and, in the worst cases, to infant neglect or abuse,” said Peretz. “At-risk parents within the purview of social service agencies could be encouraged to play vocal music to infants, and better still, to sing to them.”