Research Shows a Lullaby in any Language Calms Baby

News about the universal power of lullabies also soothes parents!

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Young mother sings a lullaby to her baby.

(Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com)

Hush little baby. When an infant cries, parents soothe their baby with a gentle song. Fascinated by this relationship between infants and music, scientists set out to study whether a baby can also be calmed by lullabies from other cultures sung in a foreign language. The results reveal the universal power of music and the strength of song as a parenting tool.

This study, published in Human Nature Behaviour in 2020, will motivate parents to brush up on their “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” skills. Researchers from The Music Lab at Harvard played foreign lullabies to American infants, as well as familiar lullabies.

In their experiment, they showed an infant an animated video featuring two characters singing either a lullaby or a regular song, according to The Harvard Gazette. They had to work fast; infants lose attention after five minutes, so this was a quick experiment! The study incorporated 16 songs in many languages and from a variety of cultures.

Intent on avoiding bias when selecting the songs, researchers conducted a separate study on adults asking them to identify whether an unfamiliar song was a dance, love, healing song, or a lullaby. Their final collection included various songs in Hopi, Scottish Gaelic, and Western Nahuatl (an Aztecan language from Central Mexico). The regions represented comprised the Middle East, Polynesia, and Central America.

The babies watched and listened while researchers measured their heart rate, the diameter and width of their pupils, and variation in the electrical characteristics of their skin. They also looked at the frequency of blinking and the direction of the babies’ gaze. The parents of the babies were then asked to identify which songs were, in fact, lullabies.

The results may not be surprising, although they are reassuring. Infants do respond positively to all lullabies, including those with foreign melodies and words. This leaves researchers to conclude that there are universal elements to all lullabies.

The exact elements of a lullaby that may calm an infant has been studied, bringing more hope to sleep-deprived parents. In a study by the International Congress of Infant Studies, Canadian researchers had babies aged 7 to 10 months listen to singing in Turkish. They discovered that babies remained calm twice as long when listening to calming foreign music as opposed to speech.

Parents of fussy babies are eager for the exact recipe to soothe a baby with song. These researchers recommend a song with steady, rhythmic beats, a melody that is repetitive, and words that are predictable. They  also suggest that live singing is preferable, while being face-to-face with a baby is best.

Lullabies are a powerful parenting tool to soothe babies all over the world and are “a testament to how effective music is,” Mila Bertolo, a researcher at The Music Lab, told The Harvard Gazette. Bertolo and her team feel they also have a piece of the puzzle that drives the success of music therapy used in a clinical setting.

Together, these two studies are welcome and soothing news for tired parents across the globe. Be it a baby song sung in Hopi, or a tune from Polynesia, your Rock A Bye baby will react positively, becoming quiet, and calm, while feeling secure and loved.

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