Although some children have the ability to fall asleep easily, for others it’s more complicated. They might suffer from night fears, get overstimulated in the evening, or suffer from fear of abandonment. Following a nightly bedtime ritual can help children fall asleep.
Although many parents naturally sing a lullaby to their infant at bedtime, the habit can be lost by the time their toddler is more than 18 months old. Lullabies have multiple benefits throughout a child’s development, however, and it’s worth singing to older children each night, too!
Lullabies calm children
According to neurologist Tim Griffiths, an ancient part of the brain in the limbic system is responsible for emotional responses to music. This stimulation reduces children’s level of arousal. Who hasn’t heard and enjoyed the silence that usually surrounds the first notes of a song being sung? Children are particularly sensitive to it.
If singing doesn’t make you feel comfortable, why not just hum the melody softly so that only your children can hear you? They won’t judge the quality of your singing; on the contrary, they’re much more likely to be overcome by the sound of your voice and enjoy this special moment with you. Another unexpected benefit of lullabies is that they can reduce stress and fatigue—for the people who sing them!
Lullabies reduce pain
In 2013, a London pediatric hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, conducted a study on 37 hospitalized children. The study demonstrated the positive effects of lullabies on children’s sleep, as well as their effectiveness in reducing children’s perception of pain due to illness or an operation.
Thanks to their very slow tempo, lullabies encourage a decrease in heart rate and calm the perception of pain. The music also helps children be more tolerant of medical care.
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While some parents prefer to use recordings rather than sing themselves, music therapist and researcher Dr. Pickett, co-author of this study, says that if the parents do the singing it’s even better for the children, since a rich musical accompaniment in the background can make the words of a lullaby less audible and less effective.
Infants will recognize the voice of their mother or father, whom they have heard so often already in utero. Babies will be sensitive to the facial expression of the adult singing. The sharing of emotion, at a crucial moment like bedtime, is very important. A lullaby wraps the child in a blanket of sound that soothes and comforts him or her from the sorrows or anxieties experienced during the day.
Managing to soothe a baby with lullabies is not surprising at all, since “parents have been singing to their children for thousands of years and they have always instinctively known that it helps their children to relax,” says Dr. N. Pickett. “It’s exciting to have scientific evidence that lullabies offer genuine health benefits for the child.” The lullaby ritual can also be a special moment between a parent returning late from work and his or her child.
A gateway to communication and a tool for language development
Lullabies are a first entry into communication: an initiation to the melody and prosody of one’s language, its rhythm and musicality. When children start to grow up a little more, lullabies arouse curiosity. The very repetitive and slow style of lullabies allows children to distinguish the sounds well and to retain them. Listening to lullabies in a foreign language can also be an interesting way to integrate the melody of another language, even for a small child.
Although parents could sometimes question the lyrics of children’s songs, nursery rhymes are nevertheless incredible tools for allowing children to escape into an imaginary world. They also help to develop children’s vocabularies.
The press release about the study mentions some lullabies that were identified as “particularly effective.” It mentions “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Hush Little Baby,” “Five Little Ducks,” “See Saw Marjorie Daw,” and “Hush a Bye Baby.”
Traditional folk songs, Christmas carols (like “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night”), religious songs (“Hail Mary” or “Our Father”) can also be used as lullabies. It’s up to each parent to draw from the repertories of their own families, their childhoods and their regions to find the most meaningful melodies to send your children to sleep.
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