A music therapist shares her effective lullaby tips to help you soothe your baby into a sweet slumber
Ask your mum what bedtime advice was around when she was young and she might remember some pretty startling stuff, including no cuddles at bedtime to putting babies to sleep on their tummies. But one thing that hasn’t changed over the years – however many centuries back you go – is mums singing lullabies to settle their babies to sleep. And that’s because lullabies can work sleepy wonders.
Why? For starters, hearing is the first sense to develop, from as early as 16 weeks into pregnancy, so your baby has known the sound of your voice since then. Research shows that babies have a preference for live singing rather than recorded sound, and that they prefer singing over speech, so she loves that lullaby even more than her bedtime story.
Your baby also prefers your voice to any other sound, so you really are the best person to be singing her a lullaby, whatever you might think of your singing voice!
We’re still learning about how music affects the brain, but we do know that it can arouse us, calm us, sharpen our senses, change our mood, increase or lower our heart rate, connect us to others and relieve pain.
Amazingly, when it comes to the care of premature babies, sucking, feeding, oxygen saturation and sleep are all improved when music is used as part of their care. This all leads to faster weight gain and sometimes results in pre-term babies being able to go home sooner than if they hadn’t been exposed to music. So there’s no doubt about it, music is good for babies!
Singing lullabies to your baby is also a great way of bonding with her. Music impacts parts of our brain involved in empathy, co-operation and trust, and it enhances social bonds. And lullabies can strengthen your relationship with your baby.
Bedtime is a time of separation and, for your baby, the lullaby acts as reassurance that you are still there, that she is safe and loved night and day. It tells her that it is safe for her to fall asleep, and this feeling of security allows her to do so peacefully. And it works for you too.
Scientists have shown that singing releases oxytocin and endorphins – the ‘happy hormones’ also released during labour, birth and breastfeeding – in the brain, making you feel connected, trusting and loving. And these feelings are the bedrock of your mother-baby bond.
Also, singing to your baby lowers your own heart rate, increases oxygen levels in your bloodstream and decreases your stress levels. Your baby is very intuitive to your mood and will be comforted by your relaxed state. So the act of singing calms you both and binds you together. And it’s because of all this that, once your baby is familiar with the two or three lullabies you and she prefer, she’ll quickly relax when she hears the first few words or notes of the tune. And that’s when lullabies really start to work their magic. I know because, as well as being a music therapist, I’m a mum of four children. So when it came to settling my babies to sleep, I put the theory into practice, and learned a few tricks along the way. To get the best results from your lullaby, have your baby snuggled up in a dimly lit or darkened room, cosy and positioned ready for sleep in her cot. Then sing the lullaby until you are sure that she is drifting off.
Lullabies are your best friend when it comes to helping her get to sleep away from home
GOODNIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT
There are nights when I’ve sung a lullaby on repeat to a sick child more times than I could count, but it always works its magic.
Another trick I use is to creep out of the room while still singing. Keep the lullaby going, as you go, and the sound drifts gently away. This way, there’s no sudden silence to jolt baby into a wakeful state. Fading away the lullaby is particularly helpful when she has woken during the night. Then, always hum or sing to an open ‘ah’ sound so your baby isn’t stimulated by the words. Keep your sound smooth and even quieter than your singing at bedtime to lull her back to sleep. Avoid any stimulating eye contact – your connection with her is all about your voice. This is a great comforter if teething pain or a noise has nudged her out of sleep. I’ve hummed lullabies from outside the bedroom door to great effect!
As well as helping to calm a fractious baby at bedtime, I found lullabies are your best friend when it comes to helping her get to sleep away from home. The room and all its sights, sounds and smells will be new to her and stimulating, but start singing and your voice and your special lullaby are familiar and she knows this is a cue for sleeping. Similarly, if you are trying to get her to nap in her pram instead of her cot, her familiar lullaby allows her to switch off and go to sleep.
Another trick is to learn a lullaby in a different language – you probably know the words to Frère Jacques. Sing this when she’s in a lively state at bedtime and she’ll love listening to the sounds, which can be more soothing than listening to – and processing the meaning of – the words of the song.
A favourite trick of mine to settle a toddler is to adapt a favourite lullaby to be more fun at the start, maybe by changing some words to include her name or something about her day. This really grabs her attention, but because she associates the melody with bedtime and sleep, you can then, over a few verses, make the transition into her usual sleepy lullaby. Slow the speed, calm your tone, make your notes smoother and longer and your baby will be lulled into that safe, sleepy state as you snuggle her, still singing. Take it down another notch by moving from singing words into humming, and you will find yourselves both calming down.
Think about whether you could use lullabies to settle and soothe her at other times? If she’s hurt, or just had her jabs, could singing her favourite lullaby instantly give her those feelings of safety, comfort, reassurance and connection with you? And would it help you to feel calm too? Try it and put the magic of lullabies to good use.
Your toddler will be lulled into that safe sleepy state as you snuggle her.