A new study suggests that singing might be more a more efficient way than talking to calm a baby; the researchers say that singing help infants to develop emotional self-control. The paper is entitled “Singing Delays the Onset of Infant Distress”, and is published in the journal Infancy.
Researchers from the University of Montreal tested the calming effects of singing and talking on 30 infants. The latter were calm for twice as long when listening to an unknown song than when listening to speech.
“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,” explained Professor Isabelle Peretz, of the university’s Center for Research on Brain, Music and Language. “Emotional self-control is obviously not developed in infants, and we believe singing helps babies and children develop this capacity.”
The researchers also wanted to determine whether infants are able to respond to music the way adults do by tapping their feet, or nodding their head, or drumming.
“Infants do not synchronize their external behaviour with the music, either because they lack the requisite physical or mental ability,” Peretz explained. “Part of our study was to determine if they have the mental ability. Our finding shows that the babies did get carried away by the music, which suggests they do have the mental capacity to be “entrained”.”
The infants were made to listen to Turkish speech (both ‘baby-talk’ and adult-type) and Turkish music so that they were exposed to a different language to ensure their responses were to the music and talk and not to familiar voices and sounds.
“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,” explained first author Mariève Corbeil, also of the University of Montreal. “Every parent knows it’s not much use singing Rihanna to their baby!”
Furthermore, the surroundings of the babies included no other stimuli that could affect them.
“Although their parents were in the room, they sat behind the babies, so their facial expressions could not influence the child’s,” Corbeil added.
“Infants were also exposed to recordings, rather than a live performance, to ensure comparable performances for all children and no social interactions between performer and child.”
The recordings were played until the infants displayed expressions of distress (cry-face) such as lowered brows, pulling lip corners to the side, and opening their mouth.
“When listening to the Turkish song, babies remained calm for an average duration of approximately nine minutes. For speech, it was roughly only half as long, regardless of whether it was baby-talk or not,” Corbeil said.
“The lack of significant distinction between the two types of speech came as a surprise to us,” she added.
The researchers conclude that singing is efficient in calming babies.
“Our findings leave little doubt about the efficacy of singing nursery rhymes for maintaining infants’ composure for extended periods,” Peretz said. “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.
“While infants listened to the Turkish play song for roughly nine minutes before meeting the cry-face criterion, it was six minutes for the play song in French, a language with which they were very familiar,” said Corbeil.
“These findings speak to the intrinsic importance of music, and of nursery rhymes in particular, which appeal to our desire for simplicity, and repetition.”
The researchers encourage parents who face negative socio-economic and/ or emotional situations to sing when their children show signs of distress.
“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.”