Benefits of Lullabies, Nursery Rhymes and Other Songs for Children

Cognitive psychologist Tonya Bergeson-Dana combines her real world experience as a mother with her professional training as a researcher to provide parents with a practical way to apply the most current findings in childhood development research to their everyday life. Tonya is also a co-founder of The Urban Chalkboard Play Cafe of Carmel, and welcome questions and feedback from readers at [email protected].


Nearly every culture has had a special category of songs sung exclusively to babies, whether they are lullabies, nursery rhymes or some of our own creations handed down through the generations. We sing some songs to babies to calm them down and help them get to sleep (e.g., Rock-a-bye Baby in a Treetop) and other songs while playing with our babies and to get them to giggle (e.g., Skinnamarink a-Dink a-Dink). If you’re a parent (or a soon-to-be parent) who just read those song names without any recognition whatsoever, don’t stress out. You will be surprised at the songs that come out of your mouth that you had no intention of singing before you became a parent! In addition to your own tunes, corporations have created CDs with classical music designed to make babies smarter (e.g., Baby Einstein™ might play Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik) and music classes for parents and babies have also been introduced to the market (Kindermusik, Music Together®). Do these products and services actually work? Luckily, researchers have been following these trends to see what works and why.
In 2012 researchers from Dr. Laurel Trainor’s Auditory Development Lab at McMaster University in Canada randomly assigned six-month-old babies to two music classes:
An Active music class that involved singing, moving and playing percussion instruments with their parents.
A Passive music class that involved listening to music from the Baby Einstein™ series while interacting with art, books, balls, blocks and stacking cups with their parents.

They tested the same babies six months later and found not only that the music skills of the Active group had improved more than those of the Passive group, but so had their social and communication skills.

Because it’s difficult to tease apart which of the aspects of the Active music class were responsible for these benefits (musicality, sociability and communication), another group of researchers at McMaster University took a closer look at sociability. They conducted a series of experiments in which an assistant wore 14-month-old babies in forward-facing baby carriers and bounced to music along with an experimenter, who either bounced to the music with them (synchrony) or bounced against the beat (asynchrony). The babies were then placed in a situation where the experimenter “accidentally” dropped an object and the baby had an opportunity to hand the object back to the experimenter.
The researchers found that the babies who had been bounced in synchrony with the experimenter were more likely to help her with the dropped object than babies bounced against the beat. This suggests that musical engagement and synchronous rhythm provide cues for pro-social behavior even in children as young as 14 months. These results might also help explain why we use music not only when rocking little babies to sleep but also at social events such as weddings, funerals, military activities, birthday parties, even jumping rope at recess, where emotional bonding and sharing common goals are emphasized.
The take-home message here is that although singing and bouncing with your baby might sometimes feel foolish, your baby is actually reaping the benefits of this simple activity. He’s developing a sense of music and culture, advancing his language and communication skills, and developing pro-social, cooperative behaviors. So keep singing and dancing, or crooning lullabies while rocking your baby, no matter what the song!

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