Keeping a baby calm can be one of the most stressful things for a parent or caretaker to do. The baby is unable to communicate their needs. There are many tears, and only some of them are from the baby. Studies have been trying to discover whether singing is a key to combatting some of the fussiness. If singing does work, how does that stack up against just talking to your infant to calm them?
A study done in Montreal found that babies remained calm for twice as long when listening to singing compared to talking. Talking was tested both in “baby talk” as well as adult talk to see if there was significance in the tone of the communications. According to professor Isabelle Peretz, “Many studies have looked at how singing and speech affect infants’ attention, but we wanted to know how they affect a baby’s emotional self-control.” Peretz works in the University of Montreal’s Center for Research on Brain, Music and Language.
What is entrainment?
“Entrainment” is the word that the study researchers use for the reactions that adults and children have to music. This reaction is visible when you see a foot tapping, fingers drumming or dancing to the music. Babies don’t have the capability to move to the beat, leading researchers to believe they could not be “entrained.” If infants cannot be “entrained,” will the music have any affect on them whatsoever? This question was posed from these observations of the different way ages respond to music.
How was the study conducted?
The babies listened to talking and music in the Turkish language to make sure that it was unfamiliar. No other stimuli was placed in the room with the baby. This means the walls were black, there were no toys, and there were no humans in sight. The parents were in the room, but they were placed behind the babies to avoid any visual clues from the parents. There were no live concerts given to the infants, all were recorded to make sure that the experience was uniform.
The study started when the babies were calm. When they reached a calm state, parents took a seat behind the infants and the researchers played recordings until they noticed the baby was about to cry. The cry was predicted by facial cues in the baby such as eyebrows being lowered, lip corners turning down, and mouth opening.
Listening to the Turkish music resulted in the infants staying calm for an average of nine minutes. While speech (baby talk and adult-directed talk) came in around four minutes. In another facet to the study they ran the test again with French nursery rhymes being sung. Since this study was done in Montreal the infants were familiar with the French language. They found that the nursery rhymes resulted in six minutes of calm from the infants. The French nursery rhymes contained repetition and simplicity, like the nursery rhymes familiar to other cultures.
Why does this matter?
The study indicates that being sung to helps infants regulate their emotions. Singing to our children has become less common in western civilizations, though parents routinely speak and interact with their babies. However, they are not singing as often. This study seems to indicate that an important tool is being missed.
“Although infant distress signals typically prompt parental comforting interventions, they induce frustration and anger in some at-risk parents, leading to insensitive responding and, in the worst cases, to infant neglect or abuse,” Peretz said. “At-risk parents within the purview of social service agencies could be encouraged to play vocal music to infants and, better still, to sing to them.”