I believe that singing lullabies is one of the most important things that parents and other caregivers can do to bond with and soothe their children. A lullaby, like all other songs shared with children, is also a great way to support a little one’s early literacy growth because lullabies have rhymes, rhythms, and new words just like any other type of song. As a practitioner and parent, I saw this to be true countless times over many years of bedtime lullaby singing to my own children and leading lullaby singalongs in my library programs.
I parented in the era of cassette tapes and compact disks and learned some of my kids’ favourite lullabies by listening to tapes and CDs of Kathy Reid-Naiman, Raffi, Connie Kaldor and Pat Carfra (aka the “Lullaby Lady”) who are four of Canada’s icons in children’s music. Eventually, my program attendees learned their beautiful songs from me too, and I often heard feedback from parents that they had incorporated our program’s shared lullabies into their babies’ sleep routines, just as I had. Although not everyone has a CD player these days, I still urge my pre-service librarian students to learn about children’s music collections. In class, we explore different ways that librarians can both learn and teach lullabies and other songs to parents of young children.
What does lullaby research say?
For this column, I turned to some scholarly research on lullabies and found out some surprising but ultimately confirmatory things. Not only are lullabies a worldwide practice as I assumed, it turns out that infants respond to lullabies from cultures beyond their own. In a fascinating study done at Harvard and reported in Nature Human Behavior, Bainbridge et al (2020) played a variety of song types sung in languages unknown to the babies. Taking note of babies’ heartrates, pupil dilation, and something called electrodermal activity (EDA), researchers determined that lullabies imparted a more significant calming effect on heartrate, pupils and EDA than the other song types. This riveting finding should strengthen our assertions that lullabies are good for calming babies, and what new parent doesn’t want to know how to calm their baby?
Another research study pointed to the value of lullabies in helping premature babies during distressing medical procedures. In Egypt, Pouraboli et al (2019) played recordings of intubated babies’ own mothers singing lullabies to them before, during, and after tracheal suctioning. The researchers wanted to see if hearing their mothers’ singing to them would have a therapeutic impact on infants’ heart and respiratory rates, thereby helping them recover from these procedures more quickly. The results are convincing: these sick babies were definitely helped by this very simple intervention. By just using MP3 recordings and little headphones, babies showed less distress because they were listening to their mothers sing to them.
Lullabies have not just been shown to be good for babies. Other studies suggest that singing lullabies has a therapeutic effect on adults too. For example, the Limerick Lullaby Project (Carolan et al, 2012) showed that learning lullabies during pregnancy was associated with relaxation, stress reduction, and increased feelings of closeness to their babies. The mothers in this study also valued connecting with other expectant mothers as well as having songs to sing to their infants when they were born, which in turn increased their confidence as new parents.
Adding lullabies to your song repertoire
How should children’s librarians encourage lullaby singing? No matter what your cultural background, if you grew up in a family that sang lullabies, and you still remember them, that’s great. You can share those same lullabies in any language and families will love them. You can also check out Putumayo Kids lullaby collections for samples of lullabies from around the world. Don’t forget to check out the always incredible resources over at Mother Goose on the Loose.
I found that it took me a long time to learn a new lullaby well enough to teach it to a group but it was time well spent. It is truly a magical experience to be in a room of new parents singing a lullaby together! If you don’t have a baby of your own to practice your lullaby repertoire on like I did, there are many other ways to hone this skill. One suggestion I have is to start an informal lullaby club with other storytime facilitators: Just get together to teach each other some lullabies! This can be done in person, over Zoom, or even asynchronously by sharing videos over whatever channels you like.
Free lullaby resources
Here is a list of some of my favorite lullaby learning resources that might be new to some of you. I have included links to videos and playlists so you can learn them yourselves. I hope you will add some of these to your lullaby repertoires.
Babushka Baio (Kathy Reid Naiman)
Goodnight, Irene (Raffi)
Lullaby, Lullaby (Connie Kaldor)
Morningtown Ride (Raffi)
Rock me easy (Kathy Reid Naiman)
Rockabye You (Kathy Reid Naiman)
Yo Te Amo (Kathy Reid Naiman)
Please share your favorite lullaby resources (with links if possible)in the comments.
Bainbridge, C.M., Bertolo, M., Youngers, J. et al. Infants relax in response to unfamiliar foreign lullabies. Nat Hum Behav 5, 256–264 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-
Carolan, M., Barry, M., Gamble, M., Turner, K., & Mascareñas, Ó. (2012). The Limerick lullaby project: An intervention to relieve prenatal stress. Midwifery, 28(2), 173-180. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2010.12.006Link
Pouraboli, B., Rayyani, M., Anari, M. D., Hosseini, F., & Loghmani, L. (2019). Lullaby effect with mother’s voice on respiratory rate and the speed of its return to the pre-suction state in intubated preterm infants, during tracheal tube suction Kerman, Afzali pour hospital 2016. Electronic Journal of General Medicine, 16(1), em106. https://doi.org/10.29333/ejgm/93471
Tess Prendergast worked as a children’s librarian for over twenty years and now teaches librarianship and children’s literature courses at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She has served on many ALSC committees and now facilitates the Preschool Services Discussions at ALA Annual. You can read more about her work here and here.