What’s in a Mother’s Song?

Dr Shannon de l’Etoile

How do a baby’s body and brain respond when their mother sings a lullaby?

Shannon de l’Etoile, PhD, is hoping to find out. de l’Etoile, professor of music therapy at the University of Miami, Florida, began watching interactions between typically functioning mothers and infants, mothers with postpartum depression and their babies, and mothers and infants with Down Syndrome.

The infants she studied became highly attentive to their mothers’ singing and showed “a contented state of arousal,” she said. Mothers, meanwhile, became more engaged with their babies.

To examine the issue more scientifically, de l’Etoile has launched a study of infant-directed singing, a method connecting babies and mothers through song. With the help of a nearly $20,000 grant from the Grammy Museum — a Los Angeles nonprofit that hosts and funds exhibits and other music programs — de l’Etoile plans to recruit 20 women whose children attend programming at the Linda Ray Intervention Center at the University of Miami. The early intervention program targets children under age 2 who have disabilities, slower development, or who may have been exposed to drugs in utero. The study will last 1 year, with plans for an extension. 

“By helping the mothers to become more sensitive, we are simultaneously helping infants learn how to regulate, so that by the time they’re in preschool, they can manage their behavior and have a successful, positive experience,” de l’Etoile said. She hopes her project will help women gain the confidence they need for families emotionally.

Mothers who practice infant-directed singing communicate with their babies through a variety of songs, from happy, playful versions of the ABCs, to more somber, drawn-out lullabies. In turn, their babies learn the emotional cues that go along with songs, potentially going from crying to playing, or watching their mother attentively.

Later in life, children raised with infant-directed singing might sing to themselves when they are stressed or need to go to sleep, de l’Etoile said. 

A caregiving method like singing may be less intuitive for women facing basic survival challenges, like maintaining safe housing or putting food on the table, d’Etoile said.

Interest in studying infant-directed singing has grown in the past few years, although according to Sandra Trehub, PhD, an expert in infant-directed singing, studies of the phenomenon began in the early 1990s. In her own work, Trehub found that infants appear to be more engaged with parents who sing directly to them than those who sing around but not at them.

Trehub said singing can be an additional resource for a mother to overcome socioeconomic hardships and bond with their child.

“Songs sung to an infant repeatedly become almost like a special signal between mother and child, a way for them to bond with each other,” she said.

Isabel Santana Chica, MS, executive director of the Linda Ray Intervention Center, expressed enthusiasm for the project.

“Music is a great way to support language, social, and emotional development,” Chica said. “My hope is that through infant-directed singing, mothers will have one additional tool to connect to their infants and enhance development.”

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