Imagine. You’re sleeping deeply. It’s the middle of the night. Suddenly, you hear a soft cry. The cry is soft but persistent. You get out of bed, walk over to the crib, and pick up your baby. The crying stops for a moment and then continues. Knowing that your baby’s bodily needs have been met, you rock your baby, whisper “shhh,” and rub your baby’s back. The crying continues. What do you try now?

Yes. You sing. But why? As you probably know, listening to music helps relax and improve mood. It’s wonderful. The areas in your brain responsible for making you feel calm and happy also are involved in music listening. When you are consumed with sadness or anger, listening to the music helps access those cheerful emotions which are closed off. Babies especially will respond positively to their parents’ singing voice versus anyone else’s. After all they’ve been hearing their parents’ voices throughout most of pregnancy (starting at around 16 weeks gestation).

Now does that mean that parents can sing anything and the baby will feel better? By no means! Here’s an example. If you are mad, angry, or sad, will just any song by your favorite artist help make you feel better? No way! Sometimes the song needs to be slow, medium, fast, happy, or sad. Similarly, your baby’s music must be a little different and specialized. For both your recorded playlist and your singing voice, here are some musical tips to help soothe your baby:

  1. The songs must sound happy. I’m not just talking about lyrics. Refrain from songs that sound scary, sad, or creepy. Just like sad lyrics are sometimes sung over happy sounds, happy lyrics are sometimes sung over sad sounds. For example, “Ants Go Marching One by One” is fine for preschool when the little ones are moving around and learning their numbers. However, the song is in a minor (i.e., sad-sounding) key. Therefore, the song is not advisable to use with babies for soothing purposes. Instead, choose happy sounds like the song, “This Old Man,” which is played in a major (i.e., happy-sounding) key.
  2. The songs should be slow. As the babies get a little older and into their toddler years they start preferring medium-fast songs. However, for this age, keep the songs slow. Slow songs are easiest for babies to process and are best for soothing.
  3. The lyrics must be 1) developmentally-appropriate, 2) have plenty of repetition, and 3) be easy to sing. Developmentally-appropriate words are words that your baby will eventually understand and potentially say in a year (e.g., “mama,” “papa,” “hi,” “stop,” and “go”). Repetition is how we learn and process. More opportunities for repetition the better. By easy to sing, I mean, simple melodies versus songs with big leaps like the um-pah song in the Willy Wonka movie. For babies, it can be unsettling and difficult to process frequent leaps during a song. Therefore, choose songs that move one note after the other like little steps on the piano. These songs are simple for you to sing and easy for the babies to listen.
  4. The chord progression must be simple. Complex jazz, funk, be-bop…all great and fun, for sure! However, frequent chord changes, similar to large melodic leaps, can be unsettling and difficult for babies to process. If you really like those genres, then choose songs that are a little slower with fewer chord changes. In regard to genres, babies like what you like. Choose your preferred genres, especially those linked with your faith and culture, that you and the baby will enjoy singing and listening.

After these tips are put into practice, the best advice is to pay attention to your baby. Remember, YOU are your baby’s favorite artist (and all around favorite person). Your baby will communicate to you if he or she likes the song or not. Smiling, vocalizing (e.g., cooing), and not crying are great signs! Red face, grimace, or continued cries are signs that this might not be the right song. Some babies (especially when premature) will put up a “stop” hand to show they are overstimulated or unsettled by the song. If that happens, stop singing, give your baby a couple moments, and then try another song. Your baby is just as unique as you are in regard to musical tastes, therefore, try your best using these musical tips and watch/listen to how your baby responds.

For more on child development and music preferences and guidelines, enjoy reading “The Child as Musician” edited by Gary E. McPherson.