Rock-a-bye Bonding: Why singing promotes parent-infant attachment
Updated: May 25
Mothers sing to their babies. This seems to be a universal truth. Even a woman who feels she "can't carry a tune in a bucket" might be found humming a little "Rock-a-bye Baby" as she puts her little one to sleep. I personally have found that Brahms was really onto something with his famous lullabye. It has just the right tempo, rhythm, and stresses for the back-and-forth of our rocking chair. If I fail to start humming as we rock together, my toddler hums to prompt me. It just isn't bedtime without a gentle song. Why is that? What is it about the mother's singing that helps babies sleep? It turns out there is a lot going on within that simple interaction.
The rocking motion reminds the infant of the womb environment. And the everpresent sound during that time was -- you guessed it -- mom's voice. The sound was a physical vibration that surrounded the child at all times. It's an auditory cue of what is safe and familiar.
Interestingly, it makes a difference whether mom is singing or talking. The open vowels, extended phrases, slower pace, inflection, etc., of sung phrases cause them to contain greater emotional content than regular speech. When mom is singing, she is conveying more emotion to the baby than if she was speaking the same thing. Researcher Jane Edwards describes it this way:
"...caregivers worldwide soon realise that the infant will best attend and respond to requests for playful interactions through offering stereotypical ‘sing song’ vocalizations. This particular way of singing and speaking when interacting with infants... is known as ‘infant-directed’, in that it is distinct from the way adults use their voice in interaction with older children and with each other. The way that the infant responds to this playing easily promotes feelings of loving intimacy for the caregiver which is vital to bonding."
We are programmed to use musical vocalizations with babies because they communicate more to the child. We become more engaging, more open, and more affectionate. In return, the child responds in a way that makes her "easy to love".
Moms experiencing postpartum depression, however, have trouble bonding. Not coincidentally, their speech is much less "sing-songy" than their non-depressed peers. Edwards explains:
"...studies of interactions between parents and infants from 3-6 months of age showed that depressed mothers use less infant-directed speech, and show difficulties with the synchrony of their timing in vocal interplay with their babies."
The mother-child singing, in this way, provides a useful measurement tool for how well the two are forming an attachment to one another. And that bond may be reinforced through positive singing interactions.
Not coincidentally, infants also prefer mom's singing to anyone else's, no matter how untrained or off-key her voice is. As a music therapist, parents often ask me to sing to their child, and I am happy to oblige! But I often have a harder time getting them over old fears and performance anxieties to sing to their child themselves. I always tell them that mom's voice is magical. Your baby doesn't care that you aren't a great singer. They still want you.
And postpartum moms need music, too. Music is a great antidepressant! All that deep-breathing, rhythmic movement, and socialization will lower your blood pressure and improve your mood automatically. For new moms, self-care can feel like an almost laughable recommendation. Music is an easy way to relax and feel good about yourself. And one of the most successful treatments for postpartum depression and anxiety is spending focused, positive time with the baby. When you are depressed, just he idea of that can be overwhelming. Music can provide a structure to help support your playtime and make it feel natural.
In general, studies have shown that music:
reduces anxiety and agitation;
enhances in interpersonal relationships;
enhances self-awareness and self-expression;
improves self-image and self-esteem;
improves ability to self-soothe and cope with traumatic triggers;
promotes co-regulation between infant and parent for secure attachment;
creates a context for positive interactive play.
Have I convinced you yet? Don't be shy. Your baby is the easiest "audience" you'll ever encounter, and she'll love you for it.