It’s 3 a.m. Your newborn baby is crying. You feed and change him but the reprieve from his sorrowful cry is only momentary. What now? If only he could talk. You cradle and rock your little one, patting his back, reaching into your memory for a soothing tune. “Rock a bye baby on the tree top. When the wind blows the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks the baby will…” You stop singing mid-rock. Why on earth is singing to an infant instinctual? And why would a song about a crashing cradle in gale force wind be of comfort?
Lullabies are one of the first ways in which we expose babies to literacy. We think of singing as an instrument in our parental toolkit for soothing babies’ emotions. Lullabies have great importance in doing just that. When a parent or caregiver sings to an infant, no matter how off-key, most infants absorb their parent’s calm though the music and warmth of being held. But lullabies also enable babies to make better sense of the jumble of speech they hear.
Lullabies slow language down. Singing puts words and phrases into rhythms that help children feel as well as hear syllables in words. Words are repeated with each verse reinforcing the combination of words and patterns of sound. Singing also pitches words slightly higher making it easier for babies’ small new ear canals and eardrums to distinguish the sounds. We have sung lullabies to our babies for generations because they comfort, but also because they help teach babies how to speak.
The connection between oral language and learning to read is enormous. A child must be able to distinguish the sounds of language before he or she is able to read well. Without the ability to tease out words into their smallest sound chunks a child cannot make clear sense of letter-sound relationships and how they are combined in print. The child will never be able to decode new words; only memorize words seen many times.
As you are reading this article pause for a moment to sing “Rock-a-bye Baby”. Notice how slowly the words are vocalized? Notice how the word “baby” and “treetop” are chunked out into its two syllables through rhythm and changing musical notes? Notice how the words are pitched higher than if you were to simply say the rhyme? When you sing to your baby you are doing more than calming your baby so you can both get a few more hours of valuable shut-eye. You are building the foundation children need for learning how to speak, read and write.
So all that’s left is to make those lullabies humane….
Rock a bye baby on the treetop,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock.
When the birds sing the baby will smile,
And fall asleep happy in a short while.