Why parents should sing to their babies

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C: Unsplash / Zach
C: Unsplash / Zach

Play songs shape the language skills of young children

Parents often sing lullabies or happy play songs to their babies. But how do babies react to these everyday songs - and what role do they play in child development? A research team from the University of Vienna in collaboration with the University of East London investigated these questions in a recent study. The conclusion: Which songs parents sing with their little ones and how babies react to different rhythms is related to the children’s later language development. The study is currently published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

Music plays a profound role in everyday human life - from a very early age. Around the world, parents instinctively sing to their babies in a variety of everyday situations, such as when changing diapers or playing. In doing so, they want to soothe their little ones, gain their attention or simply have fun together. Researchers from the Vienna Child Study Laboratory at the University of Vienna have now asked themselves how young infants react to different rhythms sung by their mothers and what consequences the perception and processing of these rhythms have for language development.

Music motivates

The acoustic characteristics of children’s songs vary depending on their purpose: play songs are characterized by a higher rhythm, a faster tempo and higher pitches. They are also more musically varied and complex than lullabies. The latter are characterized by a slower tempo, lower pitches and less musical variation to soothe babies and help them fall asleep. In a new study, mothers sang two familiar nursery rhymes to their seven-month-old babies - a lullaby ("Schlaf, Kindlein schlaf") and a play song ("Es tanzt ein Bi-Ba-Butzemann"). The brain activity of the infants was measured by electroencephalography (EEG). In addition, the rhythmic movements (e.g. rocking or kicking) of the babies were observed. When these children were 20 months old, the parents were asked about their infants’ vocabulary by means of a questionnaire.

Using modern analysis methods, the researchers were able to show that it is possible to observe the neural processing of both types of songs based on the babies’ brain activity. According to study first author Trinh Nguyen, "Our results showed that the babies found it easier to ’track’ the lullaby with their brain activity." By this we mean that the brain waves reflect the sound of the song. This is probably due to the slow tempo and simple structures of the song. However, the infants showed more rhythmic movements during the play song." The somewhat more complex musical structures of the play songs could be more stimulating and thus motivate the children to move more to the music. Excitingly, however, only neural tracking combined with rhythmic movements during the play song had a positive effect on the size of the infants’ vocabulary at 20 months of age.

The song is what matters

The study suggests that the way babies respond to different songs may be related to their later language development. This opens up opportunities for further in-depth research to better understand the mechanisms and precise relationships between musical perception and language development. In further studies, the research team is investigating, for example, which musical elements (pitch, tempo, timbre) are particularly stimulating for babies. The findings could be helpful for developing intervention programs that specifically promote musical interaction between parents and babies. This could range from early intervention to kindergarten and beyond to support children’s cognitive and language development.

Original publication:

Trinh Nguyen, Susanne Reisner, Anja Lueger, Sam V. Wass, Stefanie Höhl, & Gabriela Markova: Sing to me, baby: Infants show neural tracking and rhythmic movements to live and dynamic maternal singing. In: Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 2023.
DOI: 10.1016/j.dcn.2023.101313