It’s easy to lapse into a sing-song way of talking to babies. Something along the lines of “I love you so much, oh yes I do, oh yes I do do do!”
It’s entertaining and elicits a smile or giggle – even some babble, in response. But the baby isn’t responding to what the mother is saying, so much as how she’s saying it.
University of Toronto Psychology professor Sandra Trehub has been looking into this, and presented at a symposium in May. It was the first one ever on music and language held by the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music in Montreal.
Trehub says babies are captivated by maternal speaking, but especially, by singing.
She says the prevailing belief is that language is acquired rapidly and effortlessly, and that music requires more effort. But she stresses that infants are naturally musical. They imitate their parents’ pitch as young as three months.
“So the mother might say ‘hi’ or ‘what are you doing’ and the child might go ‘hu-uh’,” says Trehub. “And later in the first year when infants engage in meaningless babble – baba, gaga – those who have listened to it carefully and measured it carefully, can recognize what language that child comes from. It has some of the rhythms and some of the intonation patterns.”
So if an infant is naturally musical, having a caregiver sing to them can boost their language development. Trehub says even though babies don’t understand the words, mothers can help them buy into language, through song.
“They sell infants on that form – the notion that that’s really interesting to listen to,” says Trehub. “And you know, months down the road, infants buy the content because they’ve already been captivated by the form.” Now, that’s some selling strategy.
Singing teaches infants about how language is constructed. The words are presented slowly and rhythmically, so it’s easy to catch on. Some songs are highly predictable so babies find it very comfortable, and eventually join in.
Trehub says regular singing can help infants absorb words and sounds before they speak. So that when they actually start talking, they have a leg up.
To be clear, it’s live songs, sung to infants because it promotes reciprocal communication. Not listening to a disconnected recording like, say Baby Mozart (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course).
Besides helping them develop language skills, song can actually help calm babies.
A recent study Trehub co-authored found a baby listened to a voice for four minutes before being distracted. But could listen to a singing voice for NINE minutes. It’s not known exactly why, but it could be due to vocal timbre, which creates pleasing sounds for baby.
Other research backs the benefits of singing lullabies and nursery rhymes to infants before they can speak, adding to a growing body of research singing the praises of song.
So if you like to sing, you might want to sing more to your baby. If not, well, just stick to talking. It’s also proving to give your child that linguistic leg up.
Have a listen!