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Does Singing to Your Baby Really Work?

The science behind infant-directed singing

What do you do when your hear a baby crying? In all likelihood, you do what mother and fathers across cultures have done for generations--anything and everything within your power to calm the child down. You try feeding, rocking, burping, distracting, "sh"-ing, and...singing.

Did you know that day-old babies are able to discriminate rhythmic patterns? It's true! In 2009, researchers from Hungary and the Netherlands reported that, by measuring their brain waves when listening to rhythms, day-old infants are able to detect differences between them. This wasn't a learned skill. It was innate.

That's not the only link between infants and music. There's emerging evidence that music may play in important role in an infant's development. Some even hypothesize that singing to your infant is your child's first language lesson and can prevent language problems later in life.

So what does this mean for you?

What is Infant-Directed Music?

It's long been noted that there's a special infant-directed type of communication that involves a sing-song manner of speaking, as well as singing lullabies and various play songs. This phenomenon occurs with caregivers across cultures and, whether through singing or speaking, can be characterized by a greater emotional voice quality, raised pitch level, and slower rate or tempo.

This style of singing is often refered to as "infant-directed music" or "infant-directed singing." But what is so important about this type of singing?

It turns out that there may be a strong evolutionary link to the development of infant-directed singing. In a chapter titled "Musical Predisposition in Infancy," Sandra Trehub shares her findings and hypotheses:

  • Infant-directed music seems to help optimize an infant's mood and regulate his/her arousal level.
  • Infant-directed singing likely strengthens the emotional bond between caregiver and infant.
  • There is a possibility that this style of singing could have enhanced infant survival. How so? Regulating arousal and optimizing mood for the infants could facilitate feeding and sleeping, thus contibuting towards growth and development.

But what does this mean for you?

How to Use Music with Infants

Let me start by stating what you absolutely should not do: play music through headphones. An infant's ear is highly sensitive and playing music directly to it through headphones has the potential to cause real damage.

Now that we have that thought out of the way, I can tell you that the best way to use music with your infant is to...just sing!

Even if you feel like you "can't sing" or you are "tone deaf"--that doesn't matter! Your baby does not care. Your baby loves your voice and feels connected to your way of singing, regardless of whether you sound like Mariah Carey or like 75% of first-round American Idol contestants. Additionally, the good that can happen by you singing to your baby will far outweigh any personal insecurity.

You can start by singing to your child in utero. A fetus begins to process auditory signals at about 25 weeks. This is one of the reasons why newborns prefer to hear the voice of their mother--it's the most familiar voice to them!

Singing while pregnant has the added benefit of familiarizing your baby with those songs, which you can then use after your child is born. You may even try singing a certain song as you're calming down for the night and going to sleep. Then, after your baby is born, use that same song to try and calm him or her to sleep.

You can play recorded music to your infant, too, but it won't have nearly the same effect as singing will. Singing is a super-charged way of connecting to your baby. It has the element of human interaction that little ones crave and need for their cognitive, language, and emotional development.

Not sure where to start? Here's a list of familiar children's songs to get you started:

  • You Are My Sunshine
  • The ABCs
  • Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • Itsy Bitsy Spider
  • I'm a LIttle Teapot
  • Hush, Little Baby
  • Twinkle, Twinkle LIttle Star
  • Row, Row, Row Your Boat
  • The Wheels on the Bus

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.


Trehub, S.E. (2003). Musical predispositions in infancy: An update. In I. Peretz and R. Zatorre's The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music (pgs. 3-20). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Winkler, I., Haden, G.P., Ladinig, O., Sziller, I., & Honing H. (2009). Newborn infants detect the beat in music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (7), 2468-2471.

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