Study: Singing soothes babies’ pain

Research now provides evidence that singing lullabies actually lowers babies’ anxiety, heart rates and perception of pain.
Research now provides evidence that singing lullabies actually lowers babies’ anxiety, heart rates and perception of pain. 

At ten o’clock at night on my baby’s third day in the world, she discovered her howl. I held her, terrified. Her pain was palpable and her scream so visceral it ripped through every part of me. I needed it to stop more than anything else in the world. 

I walked her, rocked her and sh-sh-sh-ed as I carried her from one end of the corridor to the other. I went on to the verandah and called desperately to the moon. I called desperately to my husband. I was a new mother with no clue. My baby wasn’t meant to cry. Not like this. This was not what I had in mind during those nine languid months of pregnancy. "Stop, baby, stop, please. What on earth is the matter?"

Then suddenly, it came from me, from somewhere deep within. It was a song – one I hadn’t heard before. I am not known as a singer, but my voice was deep and cavernous. I held my baby on my chest, and the song reverberated against her heart. She instantly stopped crying, and fell asleep. It was as if her pain evaporated. 

I can’t recall the tune and words of my first mother’s lullaby, but every time my baby cried, I had a primal urge to sing to her. For some reason, the song was usually Leonard Cohen’s 'Hallelujah'. Perhaps it was because the pitch and melody suited my voice, and the tone was so soothing. 'Hallelujah' became the anthem for my baby’s first two years. Thank you, Leonard. Just thank you.

Most of us probably sing to our babies to soothe, or help them sleep. It’s not something you plan to do or do because the midwife says you should; you do it naturally. 

Although we know it instinctively, research now provides scientific evidence that singing lullabies actually lowers babies’ anxiety, heart rates and perception of pain. 

Thirty-seven paediatric patients with cardiac and/or respiratory problems, aged between seven days and four years, were recently involved in a study conducted at the Greater Ormond Street Hospital in London. Music therapist and researcher Dr Nick Pickett measured the patients’ heart rates, oxygen levels and perceived pain levels both before and after being sung to. 

The lullabies sung to the children included ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, ‘Hush Little Baby’, ‘Five Little Ducks’, ‘See Saw Marjorie Daw’ and ‘Hush a Bye Baby’. And the study found anxiety and perceived pain dropped significantly after the lullaby session. 

In comparison, heart rate, oxygen and perceived pain levels weren’t affected when the babies and children were read to. This suggests that it’s not the presence of the parent, or the parent’s tone of voice, which is soothing – it’s the actual singing.

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Dr Pickett suggested that live performance is likely to soothe pain to a greater extent than recorded music. This is because facial expression and visual stimulation are important, as is the fact that the adult can adjust their singing voice to meet the needs of the child. “Babies and young children respond to the singer’s voice first and instruments second,” he said.

Singing lullabies to my children not only soothed their pain; it soothed mine, too. With every verse of 'Hallelujah', I became more grounded, less anxious and better able to meet my baby’s needs.

And that alone gives me enough of a reason to sing.

Zanni Louise is an emerging children’s book author, freelance writer and blogger at My Little Sunshine House. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.