When an infant shows signs of distress, a parent’s first instinct may be to engage in baby talk in an attempt to calm them down. But according to a new study, singing may be a much more effective strategy.
Published in the journal Infancy, the study found that when infants listened to music, they remained calm for significantly longer than when they listened to speech – even when the speech was baby talk.
It is well established that music can have a strong impact on us physically and emotionally. When listening to a song, we often nod our head or tap along to the beat – behaviors researchers say display our “entrainment” by music.
But study co-author Prof. Isabelle Peretz, of the Center for Research on Brain, Music and Language at the University of Montreal in Canada, notes that infants do not usually demonstrate such behaviors when listening to music, “either because they lack the requisite physical or mental ability.”
For their study, the researchers set out to gain a better understanding of whether infants do possess the mental ability to be entrained by music.
“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,” explains Prof. Peretz.
The team conducted two experiments involving 30 healthy infants aged 6-9 months.
In the first experiment, while the infants were calm, the researchers either spoke to them directly using baby talk or adult speech, played them recorded baby talk or adult speech, or played them recorded songs by a Turkish singer that they had never heard before.
“The performer sang Turkish play songs, not Western ones. This is an important point as studies have shown that the songs we sing to infants have a specific range of tones and rhythms,” explains first study author Mariève Corbeil, also of the University of Montreal. “Every parent knows it’s not much use singing Rihanna to their baby!”
The researchers also chose Turkish songs to play for the infants to ensure their reaction was not influenced by sensitivity to their parents’ voices.
The infants listened to music or speech until they displayed a “cry face” – defined as lowered brows, corners of the lips pulled to the side, mouth opening and raised cheeks.
While the infants’ parents were in the room with them during the experiment, they sat behind them to avoid influencing their baby’s reaction with their facial expressions.
The researchers found that when listening to the Turkish music, the infants remained calm for approximately 9 minutes, while they only stayed calm for around 4 minutes when listening to speech – regardless of whether or not it was baby talk.
“The lack of significant distinction between the two types of speech came as a surprise to us,” notes Corbeil.
The second experiment was conducted in the same way using a different group of infants, except the babies listened to recordings of their mothers singing songs in French – a language familiar to them.
Once again, the researchers found that the infants remained calmer for longer when they listened to the music. “Even in the relatively sterile environment of the testing room-black walls, dim illumination, no toys, and no human visual or tactile stimulation – the sound of a woman singing prolonged infants’ positive or neutral states and inhibited distress,” notes Prof. Peretz.
However, despite the songs played in the second experiment being in a language that was familiar to the infants, they did not keep them calm for as long as the Turkish songs played in the first experiment, at 6 minutes compared with 9 minutes.
According to the researchers, this suggests it is the rhythm of songs that appeal to infants rather than the words.” Our finding shows that the babies did get carried away by the music, which suggests they do have the mental capacity to be ‘entrained,'” says Prof. Peretz.
“These findings speak to the intrinsic importance of music, and of nursery rhymes in particular, which appeal to our desire for simplicity, and repetition.”
Since most mothers speak to their children rather than sing – particularly those in Western countries – the team believes their findings are important as many mothers may be missing out on the emotional benefits singing may have for their infants.
In addition, the researchers say their findings may be beneficial for parents who struggle emotionally.
“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,” says Prof. Peretz. “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.”