Why Lullabies Calm Babies and Parents

While we were moving and closer to his first birthday, Walt had a really hard time getting to sleep, and I found myself singing a lot. I also found that I had no idea how much time had gone by, when I came out of that dark bedroom. It took me a little while to figure out why this feeling was really familiar, but I figured it out while finishing my HypnoBirthing paperwork–it’s a lot like self hypnosis. I use the song I am repeating (I tend to pick one that I don’t have to “think” about and can repeat endlessly) when I really feel like I might lose my mind to put myself in a sort of zone, where I pat the baby to the slow beat of the lullaby, focus on the love in the words, and let it all go.

I have used music to stay sane through many difficult parenting moments; I even hummed during surges [contractions for you non-HypnoBirthers] to help me release tension. My family is a musical one, so I grew up singing and love to do it. But there’s plenty of research that suggests that you can stay sane through lullabies, regardless of your ability to carry a tune. There’s even more research to prove that your baby LOVES to hear your voice, much more than the most gorgeous recording of the most beautiful voice you have ever heard. In fact, researchers recently found that singing lullabies to sick kids actually decreased the pain they experienced in a London hospital! For infants and toddlers, a song they associate with an activity can help them make the transition, like going to sleep. Babies respond to the human voice like nothing else, and infants pay special attention to voices for emotional cues.

Lullabies in particular have a calming effect, obviously, but think about why this is true. (I have had lots of time to ponder this, lately.) familiar lullabies have nice associations, at least the ones you might think to sing to your own baby. But they all have several things in common: repetition, soothing sounds, easy melodies, soft moods. I am not always super psyched to spend who knows how long soothing my baby to sleep, but he will only go to sleep while nursing. Here we are. If I sing a calm, soothing song, I find myself feeling more calm. If I really focus on sweet, loving words, I feel more loving. It’s a fake-it-til-you-make-it tool when my list of stuff to do threatens to make me upset about spending time waiting for the tiny human to detach himself from my chest. (After a certain point, I really start to wonder if Mama matters at all, or if he just needs a Mama-Pacifier, but that’s just not a helpful line of thinking.)

If you’re not a melody person, use words. My husband has “sung” Biggie Smalls to our baby, in a nice, soft voice, and the kid loves it. Whatever you can recite, repeat it. When I was sick and couldn’t sing, I would list the people in our lives. “I love you, and Daddy loves you, and Gram loves you, and Grandpa loves you, and Nana loves you…” and on and on.

If you’re not a words person, hum or use your kid’s name. I learned that second trick from a mama I babysat for; she teaches this to parents in her Music Together classes. Replace the lyrics of a lullaby with your child’s name, and everyone is happy! Babies love hearing their names, and you don’t have to remember the words. I have spent a long, long (I don’t know how long) time singing “Walter James” to the tune of “All the Pretty Little Horses” or even “Twinkle, Twinkle” (which is, by the way, a Mozart melody).

One of the best hand me downs from all the hundreds we’ve been blessed with (5 older cousins, 18 months-6 years) is a CD of lullabies from around the world, called Close Your Eyes. My sister must have gotten this when they lived in Australia, because the only links I can find are to shops in Australia and New Zealand. But, I’ve been putting it on a lot, and I can confirm that China, India, Russia, and other cultures with languages and music unfamiliar to American ears, all have lullabies with repetition, soothing sounds, (comparatively) easy melodies, and soft moods. I won’t be singing along to the Indian lullaby, even though it is beautiful, but I have learned the Irish, French and Mexican ones–and you could, too. Easily. Maybe not all the verses, with perfect pronunciation, but the chorus is always simple, sweet and repetitive.

My favorites coming into motherhood were in English: All the Pretty Little Horses, Sing (from Sesame Street) and the Beatles song I Will. Having heard my sister lovingly sing the three I just mentioned in Irish/English, French & Spanish, I was excited to add those. From late pregnancy, when we watched The Muppet Movie (2008?) and discovered Walter the Muppet, we have all enjoyed singing Jim Hensen’s The Rainbow Connection, to the belly and then the baby. It has become His Song.

These are just my favorites and some ideas, if you need them. Here’s what they do: let me lose track of time. I have no clock in our bedroom (Walt will not sleep if he has realized that another human is not within 12″ of him) because knowing that it is early, late, I’ve been here for ten minutes, an hour, has always made me itchy. I start thinking about getting stuff done, and it’s harder for me to survive the times when it takes forever to put him to sleep!

This is my favorite, lately:

Arrorró mi niño, [ah-roh-roh mee knee-gnoo]
arrorró mi sol,     [ah-roh-roh mee sol]
arrorró pedazo,   [ah-roh-roh pay-dah-zoh]
de mi corazón.    [day mee coh-rah-zohn]

And it supposedly means something like this:

Hush-a-bye my baby
Hush-a-bye my sun
Hush-a-bye oh piece
of my heart.

Just try and be cranky while saying that, especially if you can roll your “r” sounds. “Arrorró” is used like “hush” for a reason. Lean on your lullabies, my sleep-deprived, long-bed-time-routine-suffering, parents.

The best lullaby CD ever. Sadly, not available in the US at the moment. If you find a copy, let me know where, so I can get it for every family I know!

The best lullaby CD ever. Sadly, not available in the US at the moment. If you find a copy, let me know where, so I can get it for every family I know!

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