Is it weird to sing my kids lullabies? Maybe, but science is clear about the benefits | Sophie Brickman

Singing to a child is as important to the singers as the listeners – something parents should remember as we seek to quell our raging anxiety

When my eldest daughter was just a few months old, I threw her in a carrier and took her on a train to visit my friend, the chorus of Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves looping in my head. I arrived, giddy and smug in the notion that my adorable new addition hadn’t disrupted my life one bit, placed her in the crib set up in my friend’s guestroom, put my hand on the doorknob – and that’s when she started to scream. Which she did for the entire night.

Twelve hours. Fourteen hours? Could have been 18. I lost count. I’d never seen her so furious. I’d never seen her so continuously awake.

Cradling her hot, red, squalling body in those first few minutes, my instinct was to sing her the lullaby that had become part of our bedtime ritual: Tender Shepherd, from Peter Pan.

Tender shepherd,

Tender shepherd,

Let me help you count your sheep,

One in the meadow,

Two in the garden,

Three in the nursery fast asleep,

Fast asleep.

It did not have the intended effect.

I briefly entertained the idea that my solo singing was unsatisfactory – my husband and I, back in those innocent days of having just one child and not three, would often sing it as a round. My friend came in to help. We sang together. The baby’s skin tone turned from rose to crimson. I banished all helpers from the room, and for the subsequent hours, sang about ruminant animals as my baby wailed. At some point, I realized she’d conked out. But, curled into the fetal position myself, I continued to mumble-whisper-sing, insisting that we’d both remain calm, that everything was going to be OK, that we’d be sleepy sheep soon enough.

Lullabies are curious songs, often about unthinkable tragedies and somber realities – babies crashing down in cradles that are strung up in trees, poor darling Clementine who’s lost and gone forever, a troubled love affair that takes someone’s “sunshine” away – many part of a tradition that for centuries had to factor in the commonness of infant death, of a life that was unpredictable and often bleak.

Seeking to understand more about the power of my nightly singing ritual to my preschooler amid an unpredictable and often bleak pandemic – my current hodgepodge lineup features Billy Joel’s Lullabye, a lethargic Bushel and a Peck from Guys and Dolls, and Baby Beluga – I headed to the library. There, I found a crispy yellow-paged little book called Lullabies, published in 1930 by one FE Budd, which collects lullabies from 1300 to 1900 and affirms their less-than-cheery heritage in the intro.

“The key to which their music is attuned is that of subdued elegiac lament rather than of lyric rapture,” Budd writes. “The spirit that they foster is one of stoical resignation in the face of impending calamity, a quality of mind that enables a man to go through with things even if he sees no prospect of a successful issue.”

Sweet dreams!

Not that all of them are that rough. But even our modern choices, as I confirmed after an informal poll of friends, are often random and a bit odd. One landed on a Spanish song, Señor Don Gato, for her newborn. It’s about a cat who’s sitting on the roof, where he learns his beloved will marry him. In his excitement, he falls off, dies, and then is resurrected when he smells the fish stand in the market as his funeral procession passes by. Mmm-kay. Another sings The Streets of Laredo to his infant despite him not being a cowboy, or having any cowboys in his lineage. (He’s an engineer.) You don’t have to have a profound connection to a song for it to stick and, on the flip side, lullabies don’t always carry down from generation to generation. I tried Amazing Grace with my child, which my father used to sing to me, and couldn’t get past the “wretch” part without crying – because of the melody? Because of something etched deep in my being that remembers being cradled in my father’s arms? Perhaps it’s that the song is often associated with grief? Dunno, don’t care, I simply can’t end every day weeping. Hence: Raffi.

The thing about singing to a child, I learned, is that it’s arguably as important to the singers as it is to the listeners, something we parents should take note of as we seek to quell our raging anxiety. (Just me?) Programs like Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project, which pairs parents and parents-to-be with professional artists to write personal lullabies, encourage new parents to sing, sing, sing. Cradling a child and singing is a one-stop-shop for bonding and connection – it involves the kinesthetic, the audio, the visual – and has been shown to support maternal health and child development. And in medical settings, the upsides are obvious: lullabies positively influence cardiac and respiratory function in premature babies, and they lower the heart rates of anxious caregivers, making them a near-zero-cost way to calm distress.

“The first sound a person hears before they’re born is the rhythm of the mother’s heartbeat, the whoosh of the womb, and their mother’s voice,” Dr Joanne Loewy told me when I reached her by phone. “There’s neurologic evidence that a mother singing to a baby is the foundation for attachment.”

Loewy has served as the director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music & Medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital for the last 28 years, where she oversees clinical work and research into the importance of music therapy. One area of study involves what she calls the “song of kin”, which might have been passed down through generations, or be the parents’ wedding song, or a favorite song from childhood. She likened it to a “special ingredient” that, when sung by the parent or any loving caregiver, imparts profound meaning to the child. While what defines a lullaby is complex – they’re often in 6/8 rhythm, but many parents change the rhythm throughout the day, making it jaunty in the morning and more soporific at night – what matters is the act of singing itself, whatever the time.

“Cuing into the mood of that child, collaborating, calibrating the music in real time, that’s where communication begins and is sustained,” Loewy said. The effect of singing is so powerful in humans, she told me, that stroke patients who have lost the ability to speak can be moved to sing if they hear a melody they remember, their neural pathways lighting up like a Christmas tree. Alzheimer’s patients, too.

As for pandemic-era lullaby singing?

“Its potency is much deeper, because there is so much stress in day-to-day action now,” Loewy told me. “The ritual of singing before bed, with those elongated vowels – it can have amazing outcomes.”

My preschooler developed a croup-like cough last week that gave her a husky smoker’s rasp and woke her up multiple times per night, hacking away and crying. She kept testing negative for Covid, and yet, as I rushed down the hall to her room in the wee hours, my head would flood with concerns that ranged from the relatively anodyne – how will this upend our schedules? – to the most profound – What if she ends up at the wrong side of the fraction?

After getting her some water and wiping her nose, I’d pick her up, cradle her, and sing – for her, yes, but, I now realize, for me, too.


Sophie Brickman

The GuardianTramp

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