A Mother's Lullaby

Mothers Who Sing To Babies Help Them Develop Emotional Regulation

According to studies, infant-directed singing helps babies learn self-regulation, which allows them to later navigate social situations.

A mother sings a lullaby to her newborn baby girl, which could help with emotional regulation.
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Singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to your baby might be more beneficial to their growth than you think. According to studies done by a board-certified music therapist, a mother’s lullaby can develop an infant’s emotional regulation, which could impact how they later navigate socialization, school, and the professional world.

Professor Shannon de l’Etoile, the associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, has been researching infant-directed singing for years and believes the habit has many benefits for at-risk mothers and their babies, chief among them self-regulation.

According to a University of Miami press release, de l’Etoile concludes music is a powerful tool that can help mothers learn more about their infants, especially those caregivers who struggle with depression, substance abuse or domestic violence. Although singing may seem like a natural instinct for some moms, de l’Etoile says others may need encouragement and guidance to provide this parenting technique, which is why she created a coaching program to help guide mothers in the practice.

“Infant-directed singing is a way that mothers communicate with their babies that most infants can recognize and respond to. But to be most effective, the mother needs to be attentive and sensitive to infant cues. For some moms that may not be happening and that impacts the infant,” de L’Etoile said.

Research will help at-risk mothers use singing to engage with their babies.

“We want to give moms and caregivers these tools they can use, so that they can feel empowered to help their babies thrive,” she added. “Building self-regulation at an early age is so important because it helps children deal with adversity. Children who don’t regulate well are lacking in resilience, and they may have problems later in life, like obesity, addiction, and aggression.”

De L’Etoile is working with the university’s College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology’s flagship early intervention program at the Linda Ray Intervention Center to create her program. The center serves children from birth to age 2, and has been the site of research focused on the developmental needs of at-risk infants and how to best support mothers in building secure bonds with their children.

Her efforts also received funding from the Grammy Museum Grant Program, a division of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. The study is one of just six scientific research projects that earned support from the organization this year.

For the month-long project, de L’Etoile and her team will watch and record mothers as they sing to their infants and then demonstrate how they can be sensitive to their babies’ emotions while doing so. If a baby is benefiting, they will gaze longer at their mother and reach a contented state.

After each mother completes the training, de l’Etoile will analyze recordings of the their voices and, ideally, reveal changes over time in the mother’s ability to modify their singing according to the infant’s emotions. Videos of the babies will also be analyzed to determine engagement with the mother over time, tracked through their gaze and facial cues.

“We want this project to have a lasting legacy and impact, not just for us to have positive outcomes but to create a model for how a program like this could be implemented in other early intervention facilities,” de l’Etoile concluded.

This is far from the first research to find the benefits of parents singing to their babies.

A 2015 study found that singing kept infants aged 7 to 10 months from feeling distress in stressful situations for twice as long as those who didn’t hear music — and it didn’t matter who was singing or what language it was in.

And multiple studies have found that singing and playing music to premature babies in the NICU result in better outcomes when it comes to vital signs, feeding, sleeping, and length of hospital stay.

Keep singing those lullabies, mama.