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The power of song: exploring the use of music by mothers to soothe fractious infants and interact with them, and the importance of supporting mothers in this.

The emotive and emotional power of song has long been recognised. There is a plethora of information about singing as a mood enhancer or stabiliser, and even listening to song can help to relax, excite or even sadden a person's temperament. Equally, it is possible for feelings and emotions to be expressed through the music without the use of words.

Generations of mothers have used music in the form of lullabies to soothe, quiet and enliven their infants. For most infants, these are the first songs they ever hear. However, when infants are fractious and difficult to settle, there is often the tendency to neglect or forget this form of traditional art. This can be surprising, since the evidence suggests that music has a beneficial effect for both the mother and her infant.

Value of music

The recognition of the therapeutic effect of music means that it is becoming increasing popular throughout residential and nursing homes. It is often recommended as a part of the treatment regime for those who experience difficulty in communicating verbally or who are reticent to socialise vocally. (1,2)

The simple joy of being able to join in a familiar song, particularly within a safe environment, helps patients and clients to express themselves in ways that they might find difficult otherwise. It also has the power to unite and bond relationships, as demonstrated by Grocke et al (3) when research participants with a severe mental illness composed a song together. It was found that their involvement with the music increased the quality of their social experiences and that a real sense of achievement was felt.

Everyone has an innate ability to appreciate and respond to music, and if the theory of music therapy is correct, then a mother singing to an infant in the form of a lullaby can be expected to have positive outcomes. The mother who sings her infant to sleep and the infant who is soothed by the singing, both partake in an engaging ritual. The moment allows the mother and infant to gaze into each other's eyes, as the infant quietly falls asleep.

Lyrics and rhythm

The lyrics also have the intention of creating tranquil moments of serenity. Cradle song (also known as Golden slumbers) by Thomas Dekker (1572 to 1632) and Brahms' lullaby by Johannes Brahms (1833 to 1897) are just two examples, including the words: Golden slumbers kiss your eyes/Smiles awake you when you rise. Lay you down now, and rest/May your slumber be blessed.

The complex pattern of phrases times with the rocking movement of the mother's arms and body, generally accepted as helping infants to sleep--if not by research, then by mothers' experiences. The rhythmic 'ssss' sounds of words are also meant to soothe a troubled infant and some have the added rhythmic sounds of a heartbeat, which infants also find comforting.

If their infant is in distress and difficult to placate, mothers are able to attune their singing in response to their infant's needs. (4,5) In this way, they can achieve empathetic responses by singing out with a loud volume and strong vocal pitch. This interaction of noise, the crying of the infant and the intensity of the mother's voice ensures the infant that the mother feels and is aware of their pain and anguish. The profound words and tune of the traditional lullaby Hush, little baby reflect how this gives the message that the mother understands completely how the infant must be feeling, and that it will be alright as she is going to remain with them.

Musical interaction

Once the mother has been able to connect with her infant's emotional state, the distress of the infant is recognised, understood, acknowledged and accepted. This phenomenon was studied by Baker and Mackinlay, (6) who found that mothers were prone to sing a repeated collection of lullabies to their infants. The tunes were sometimes personal favourites, and the mothers felt that this familiarity was associated with a safe and comforting environment. This combined with the natural, naive voice of the mother helped soothe the infant to sleep.

The musical interaction also has links with the mother's mental state, and there is evidence to suggest that mothers who are mentally unwell are less likely to engage with their infant's needs.

Singing or being aware of the sensitivity of lullabies is not always spontaneous, particularly if the mother had not had any childhood experience of them, and she may need to be encouraged and supported to be more fully engaged with her infant. (7,8) It may be argued that the more musical interaction--and consequently a more intense emotional interaction--there is, then the better the outcomes for both the mother and her infant.

Resources and tools

The potential for marketing this type of baby interaction has been recognised and addressed by the commercial sector, which offers resources with recordings of classical symphonies, advertised as products specifically designed to enhance the infant's intellect, stimulate cerebral functions and improve sleeping patterns. The constructive nuances of this are reflected by Custodero et al, (8) who suggest that the infant's perceptual capabilities when listening to music are similar in terms of consonance, dissonance and recognising changes in the tempo.

For those mothers who are embarrassed or sensitive about asking for help, the internet offers many opportunities to hear lullabies online. They can be accessed via many sites, and the BBC9 allows lullabies from around the world to be downloaded. This highlights the commonality of lullabies, which appear to be evident throughout all cultures, each with its own familiar and traditional version that is designed to soothe the infant.

Generational link

It is generally accepted that most people associate tunes and lyrics with past events, particularly emotional ones. Lullabies heard by younger children may be remembered fondly and associated with warmth and care. This provides the platform for future mothers to utilise lullabies as a reserve for their own infant's needs, and the traditional and generational link is established. The singing of lullabies and communicating through the medium of song may be a positive way to empathise with their infant's emotional wellbeing, and might enable mothers to cope with the pressures and stresses of parenthood.

There is a danger that the art of singing and remembering the lullaby may be lost if mothers are not encouraged to learn and recite them, and in time pass on the skill to their own children. Often, mothers may need to be reminded to do this and require gentle support, emphasising the positive effects for both the mother and child. (10)

Singing infants to sleep using tone, pace and volume, coupled with all the non-verbal rituals of holding, caressing, eye contact and most importantly warmth, can have a beneficial influence on their relationship. For some mothers, singing to her fractious infant may be too difficult a job to contemplate, but once achieved successfully it is possible that it may have a more satisfying outcome than turning on the vacuum cleaner or the washing machine to create the 'white noise' that is apparently so effective.


(1) Brotons M, Pickett-Cooper PK. The effects of music therapy intervention on agitation behaviors of Alzheimer's disease patients. Journal of Music Therapy, 1996; 33(1): 2-18.

(2) Maratos A, Gold C, Wang X, Crawford M. Music therapy for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2008; (1): CD004517.

(3) Grocke D, Bloch S, Castle D. Music therapy soothes mental illness. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2010).

(4) Trevarthen C, Aitken KJ. Infant intersubjectivity: research, theory and clinical applications. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 2001; 42(1): 3-48.

(5) Storr A. Music and the mind. London: Harper Collins, 1992.

(6) Baker F, Mackinlay E. Sing, soothe and sleep: a lullaby education programme for first-time mothers. British Journal of Music Education, 2006; 23(2): 147-60

(7) Murray L, Fiori-Cowley A, Hooper R, Cooper PJ. The impact of postnatal depression and associated adversity on early mother infant interactions and late infant outcome. Child Development, 1996; 67(5): 2512-26.

(8) Custodero L, Britto P, Brooks-Gunn J. Musical lives: a collective portrait of American parents and their young children. Journal of Applied Developmental

Psychology, 2003; 24(5): 553-72.

(9) BBC. Parents' music room. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2010).

(10) Hanley J. Perinatal mental health: a guide for health professionals. London: Wiley, 2009.

Vivienne Jane Hanley

Lecturer in primary care, public and mental health, Swansea University
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Author:Hanley, Vivienne Jane
Publication:Community Practitioner
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2010
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