Want to Calm Your Baby Down? Try Singing

A new study shows that singing works better to soothe Baby than talking, even if you don't have the best voice. And some songs work better than others.

Want to Calm Your Baby Down? Try Singing Mila Supinskaya/Shutterstock

Everyone knows lullabies put babies to sleep, but the full extent of music's effect on infants isn't really understood. A new study published in the journal Infancy, though, is shedding light on the calming properties of song, and giving all moms (and dads) a reason to start singing—we promise, your baby won't care how good your voice is!

The sound of music

Researchers at the University of Montreal tested the effects of singing as compared with talking on infants 7-10 months old. They played a recording of a song in Turkish, a language the babies weren't familiar with, and then spoken speech, also in Turkish, followed by baby talk. The infants remained calm twice as long during the music as compared to speech—nine minutes for the singing, and around four minutes for both types of talking. The researchers repeated their test with songs in a familiar language, French, and received similar results—the babies stayed calm for six minutes. "Many studies have looked at how singing and speech affect infants' attention, but we wanted to know how they affect a baby's emotional self-control," says study author professor Isabelle Peretz, Ph.D., of the university's Center for Research on Brain, Music and Language. "Emotional self-control is obviously not developed in infants, and we believe singing helps babies and children develop this capacity."

The study lends support to the idea that even very young children can become "entrained" by music—that is, that they are affected by the tempos and rhythms that cause older kids to nod their head or tap their feet. "Infants do not synchronize their external behavior with the music, either because they lack the requisite physical or mental ability," Peretz explained. "Part of our study was to determine if they have the mental ability. Our finding shows that the babies did get carried away by the music, which suggests they do have the mental capacity to be 'entrained.'"

The best tunes for baby

If babies do have an emotional response to music, does it matter what kind of music is sung or played? The study's first author, Marií¨ve Corbeil, also of the University of Montreal, says yes. "Studies have shown that the songs we sing to infants have a specific range of tones and rhythms," she says. "Every parent knows it's not much use singing Rihanna to their baby!" So not surprisingly, simple, easy to sing songs are the most effective at quieting infants. "These findings speak to the intrinsic importance of music, and of nursery rhymes in particular, which appeal to our desire for simplicity and repetition."

As part of the process of "entrainment," the gentle melodies of nursery rhymes and lullabies may help calm baby's heartbeat, their bodies' natural rhythm, in much the same way that rocking does. "Our findings leave little doubt about the efficacy of singing nursery rhymes for maintaining infants' composure for extended periods," Peretz says.