By Katy Foster
Updated March 24, 2021
Creating and singing lullabies is a longstanding human practice. The term lullaby comes from the word "lull," which means "to soothe to sleep" (1). People have been singing to infants and young children to soothe them throughout written history. In fact, the use of lullabies can be traced back to ancient Greece.
Most likely, however, parents have used songs to help their children fall asleep for far longer. Experts believe an inscribed tablet from ancient Babylon contains the lyrics to a 4,000-year-old lullaby (2).
Almost every culture has a lullaby tradition. As it turns out, what culture a lullaby originated from doesn't matter much to the baby or child being lulled to sleep. In one study, American babies became more relaxed while listening to lullabies from eight different countries (3).
Why Do Lullabies Work?
Researchers don't fully understand why musc in general or lullabies specifically can induce relaxation and promote sleep. However, there are several general theories that potentially offer an explanation, particularly when it comes to the effect singing lullabies has on infants and young children.
Music Helps Infants Regulate Emotions
A parent's singing can reduce distress in infants (4), promoting relaxation and even increasing smiles. A parent talking to their infant, however, doesn't have the same positive effect. In fact, infants seem predisposed to respond to music (5), and can focus their attention on it for far longer—sometimes twice as long—as they can pay attention to regular speech.
Infants also have an innate sense of rhythm (6) and respond strongly to music on both physical and emotional levels. This may explain why lullabies are particularly effective at soothing kids throughout the early years of their lives.
Lullabies Introduce Vocabulary and Learning
In addition to being soothing, singing lullabies to a baby is a natural way to present them with new words and sounds in a comforting, receptive environment. The repetitive rhyming patterns often used in lullabies teach young children to make associations between words and the music (7), which may positively impact their cognitive and verbal development.
Lullabies Complete a Sleep Routine
Infants and young children thrive on routine. Specific activities and signals help them make sense of time of day, and know what actions they should be performing at a given time. Creating a sleep routine can help infants and children recognize that it's time for bed and prepare to fall asleep. Singing lullabies before nightly sleep can help a child relax at the appropriate time and even increase sleep duration and improve cognitive development (8).
Lullabies Promote Bonding
Infants and children respond very positively to the sound of their caretakers’ voices. When babies are sung to by their caretakers, they cry less and sleep better (9). Hearing lullabies might even be beneficial to babies when they are still in the womb (10).
Also, singing a lullaby may trigger the release of oxytocin in the caretaker. This hormone enhances and encourages bonding and may increase the caretaker’s patience with a fussy, sleep-resistant youngster. Parents who sing lullabies to their infants experience less stress than those who do not.
What Makes a Good Lullaby?
A good lullaby is any melody that works for you and your child. If a song helps soothe your infant and you’re also happy with it, then it's a good lullaby for your family.
If you’re looking for a new lullaby, consider these factors:
- Choose a Song You Enjoy. Once your child becomes attached to a lullaby, that lullaby is going to be a regular presence in your life. You will probably be singing whichever song you choose many, many times over the next several years, so choose a song — or multiple songs — you think you will still be able to stand after seemingly infinite replays.
- Opt for a Simple Tune. The power of lullabies might lie in their simplicity. Lullabies tend to be written in triple meter or 6/8 meter (11), using only a handful of notes. Some musicologists theorize that this sort of meter has a soothing, rocking effect, simulating the environment in the womb. Some researchers believe music in general mimics the sounds babies hear in the womb before they're born (12). Also, the slower the song's tempo, the better it will likely perform as a lullaby. People prefer listening to songs with tempos similar to their heart rate (13). The tempo of a song can also temporarily change a person's heart rate (14), and songs with slower tempos are more relaxing than those with faster tempos.
- Think About Meaning. Your baby won't immediately understand the lyrics of the lullabies you introduce, but over time, lullaby words might become some of the first language they learn. Pick a lullaby that conveys a meaning you believe in or care about. Consider choosing a lullaby to help you connect your child to their culture, their heritage, and your own personal history. Or, conversely, consider a lullaby that introduces your baby to another culture and language. Research shows that foreign lullabies are just as effective as lullabies in the infant's native tongue.
Top 10 Lullabies
1. You Are My Sunshine
This popular American tune was first released in 1940 (15). The extended lyrics version of the song, linked here, has been updated with lullaby-amended words written by McKenzie and Reilly Zamber of The Hound + The Fox.
2. Rock a Bye Baby
"Rock a Bye Baby" is a classic children’s tune. This song has all the signatures of a good lullaby and will help your young one slip soundly into sleep.
3. Hush, Little Baby
Another time-honored lullaby, "Hush, Little Baby" is a song with flexible lyrics, which means the song can become as long or as creative as you’d like. As long as you keep thinking of more things to “give” to the baby, you can keep singing!
4. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
"Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" is perfectly simple in a way that makes it a lullaby mainstay. Singing this song can soothe a baby (16). It's also simple enough for them to understand and sing to themselves when they’re ready.
5. I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You
This Elvis classic isn’t always the first thing people think of when they think of lullabies, but it makes for some really lovely nighttime singing.
6. Somewhere Over the Rainbow
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow," originally from The Wizard of Oz and then masterfully reworked by Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole, is a very popular lullaby choice.
7. Los Pollitos Dicen
This popular Spanish language song — which means "The Little Chickens Say" in English — is about a mother hen who helps feed and warm her baby chicks. This song is a great starter that you can add lyrics to or repeat.
8. Blue Moon
Originally recorded in 1934, “Blue Moon” has been recorded and re-recorded by many of the great singers of the 20th Century. This love ballad can easily apply to you and your baby.
9. Send One Your Love (Isn’t She Lovely?)
Stevie Wonder’s hit is actually an ode to his daughter, Aisha Miller. The song was written in 1976 in honor of her birth, making it a ready-made lullaby.
10. Night Mantra
"Night Mantra" was written by child-geared music mavens Renee and Jeremy. Parents themselves, these two know how to create a lullaby you will actually enjoy listening to and singing.
- https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/11/3/138/htm Accessed on March 22, 2021.
- https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/what-the-lullabies-we-sing-to-our-children-reveal-about-us-feature Accessed on March 22, 2021.
- https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-00963-z Accessed on March 22, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32162936/ Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30912725/ Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30337892/ Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28963569/ Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21517173/ Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28169158/ Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- http://ijbssnet.com/journals/Vol_3_No_7_April_2012/35.pdf Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- http://openmusictheory.com/meter.html Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4977359/ Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8570336/ Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1029864917700706?journalCode=msxa Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/YouAreMySunshine.pdf Accessed on March 23, 2021.
- https://journals.lww.com/ajnonline/fulltext/2013/07000/the_power_of_the_lullaby.11.aspx Accessed on March 23, 2021.