People have sung to their babies forever. Every culture has lullabies and children’s songs that are passed down through the generations. New ones are written and shared, and the custom goes on—a rich part of the fabric of human civilization. These songs are designed to relax babies, calm their fears, or entertain and amuse them throughout childhood. As we have learned more about the life and capabilities of fetuses, we have realized that a fetus can hear clearly for months before birth, and can also discriminate sounds. At birth, newborns respond to familiar sounds by becoming calm and orienting toward the source of the sound, and even indicate their preferences for familiar voices and words over the unfamiliar.
Newborn babies prefer their parents’ voices, and other familiar ones, over those of strangers, and they prefer hearing a story that their mother had read frequently while they were in utero over an unfamiliar story, or even the familiar one read by someone other than their mother. Fetuses hear, remember, have preferences, respond to, and discriminate among differences—in sounds, music, voices.
These exciting findings have inspired educators to advocate prenatal learning through recordings played through a mother’s abdomen (of languages, music and other things). They have inspired birth activists and baby advocates to provide a safe, enriching environment for the fetus. Advocates of prenatal bonding emphasize communication between parent and unborn child as a powerful way to strengthen the bond.
I’d like to offer my take on this phenomenon, and urge everyone who works with expectant parents to tell them about some unique and heartwarming benefits of singing or reciting rhymes to their unborn babies.
I think my interest in parents singing to their babies prenatally began in the 1980s when I first read Michel Odent’s book, Birth Reborn. Odent, a French physician who was ahead of his time, ran a unique and original maternity care program at his hospital in Pithiviers, France. His book had a great influence on my understanding of normal birth, and the book is still worth reading today, as are his subsequent ones. Odent’s maternity program included a weekly singing group, attended by pregnant women, their partners, families with young babies, the midwives and Odent himself. The group was led by an opera singer who believed singing to be important for fetuses, babies and those who care for them. Odent’s account inspired me to invite Jamie Shilling, a folk singer who had recently taken my birth class, to bring her guitar and her baby to my classes a half hour early each week and sing with the expectant parents. This went on very successfully for several class series; afterward, the groups decided to combine and carry on in a private home with a monthly sing-along for expectant parents and new families. Although the groups eventually disbanded, they provided many parents with opportunities to sing together and connect with their babies and each other in relaxing and peaceful surroundings. A high point during that time was when Michel Odent came to Seattle to give a conference and he agreed to come to one of our sing-alongs. He taught us the song, “Little Black Cat” in French.
I couldn’t help but think, during those times, about how the unborn and new babies must have loved hearing their parents singing. Seeing the parents caressing the mother’s belly as they sang was heartwarming. That happened in the mid-1980s, when much research on the capabilities of the unborn and newborn baby was beginning to be published. Recalling those special gatherings, I have always suggested to my students in childbirth class that they sing to their unborn babies, or play their favorite recorded music, with the thought that the baby will remember it and be soothed by it after birth.
One couple, for whom I served as a birth doula, took my suggestion to another level, and showed me much more about the value of singing to the unborn baby. They were having their second child, hoping for a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean). When they discovered that they were having a boy, they decided to give their baby the song, “Here Comes the Sun” and sang it to him often during pregnancy. The VBAC was not possible, however. As the cesarean was underway, the baby boy, crying lustily, was raised for his parents to see, and his father began belting out the baby’s song. Though his mother didn’t have a strong voice under the circumstances, she also sang. The baby turned his head, turned his face right toward his father, and calmed down while his father sang. Time stopped. As I looked around the operating room, I saw tears appear on the surgical masks.
It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and it was that event that taught me the value not only of singing prenatally, but also of singing the same song every day. Not only does the baby hear his or her parents’ voices, not only does he or she hear music, but the baby also gets to know one song very well. Familiarity adds another feature to this concept, because we know that fetuses have memory and prefer the familiar. Think for a moment about what this might have meant to our cesarean-born baby—suddenly being removed from the warmth, wetness and dimness of the womb with his mother’s reassuring heartbeat, into the cold, bright, noisy operating room. The baby’s transition to extra-uterine life is hectic and full of new sensations. He cries reflexively, but perhaps also out of shock and discomfort. Then he hears something familiar—voices and music and the sounds of words that he has heard many times before—something he likes. He calms down, and seeks the source of this familiar song. Everyone present was moved by this gift to the baby from his parents.
I’ve become passionate about this idea as a way to enhance bonding between parents and babies, but also as a unique and practical measure for soothing a fussing baby or a sick baby who can’t be held or breastfed.
What is the research evidence for postnatal benefits to parents or babies of singing to the baby before birth?
Fetuses can sense audio vibrations and rhythms early in pregnancy. Later in pregnancy they can hear and distinguish various sounds.
Babies recognize their parents’ voices after birth.
Newborns prefer their parents’ voices over the voices of strangers.
Repetitive prenatal reading of one story by one parent every day for weeks results in the newborn’s recognition of and preference for that story.
Fetuses respond to music by calming, becoming active, changes in fetal heart rate (depending on the music).
Premature babies are calmed by calming music.
Newborns and young babies are calmed by familiar music, as demonstrated by the universal use of lullabies.
If parents feel they can’t sing or are too embarrassed to do it, I suggest choosing a poem that has a nice rhythmic meter, and recite that to the baby. I recommend Mother Goose rhymes, or poems in books by A.A. Milne, such as When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, or Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and others.
Recent students in my birth class took my suggestion to heart, singing “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song, to their unborn baby frequently. The dad would lie with his head on the mother’s pregnant belly as they sang. They even videotaped sessions while the mother was having a non-stress test that showed the baby’s heart rate steadying when the dad was singing, and rising when he was not. The dad sang to their sweet little daughter right after the birth. She cried pretty hard when she was being suctioned and rubbed with blanket, but his singing calmed her down.
I’ve just completed a film for children. In the film, we see 4-year-old Maia singing ”Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to her baby sister before birth, and again right after birth. Neve, her sister, calms down when she hears Maia singing the familiar song.
When parents sing one (or possibly a few) songs repeatedly to their child, before and after birth, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a unique, meaningful and fun connection with their baby. The child already knows and loves the song as sung by his or her parents more than any other song, sung by anyone else. Parents always have their voice with them and can use it to comfort, soothe, and play with their child for years to come. Parents have the opportunity to give their baby a gift, prenatally, that becomes a gift for them as well.
Simple steps to singing to the baby in utero and after birth
In light of all that has been learned about babies, I think we can combine it all into a simple approach to enhance bonding, soothe the baby, and empower parents with a unique tool to soothe their baby that only they can use. I propose that we who provide care and education for expectant parents urge them to do the following at around 30–32 weeks’ gestation (or earlier or later):
Choose a song that you like and is easy for you to sing. It might be a lullaby or a children’s song, but it does not have to be. It can be one of your favorite songs, or a popular song of the day.
Sing it every day. Both parents can sing it together, but each of you should also sing it alone much of the time. It can be played with a musical instrument some of the time, but it also should be played without an instrument much of the time.
When your baby is born, after the initial lung-clearing cry, sing the song to your baby. The baby can be in your arms or with a nurse in the warmer. If your baby is crying, try to sing close to his or her ear or loud enough that he or she can hear it at least during the pauses to take a breath.
Continue singing it every day, especially during times when your baby is crying (and has been fed; don’t use it as a substitute for feeding!).
Sing it when bathing or diapering your baby, when soothing or helping your baby go to sleep.
Sing it when your baby is upset and you can’t pick her up, such as when driving in the car and you can’t stop and take the baby out of the car seat, or at a checkup, if the doctor is doing something painful.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #38.
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