Loving with Lullabies
by Jenny Goings June 26, 2022
Singing to your child is a beautiful act of nurturing.
Singing a lullaby is an expression of your love and concern for their safety, peace, and well-being.
A lullaby ritual is a bonding experience, one that deepens connections between individual family members and further develops a sense of belonging as lullabies are passed down from grandparent to parent, to child and from older to younger siblings.
Do you remember being sung to at bedtime?
Is there a special song you sing to soothe your children?
If so, perhaps now is a good time to make conscious decisions about how to expand upon, carry on traditions or make new ones. If not, now is a great time to start a lullaby ritual for your family.
I’ve talked to a number of people about their experience with lullabies as a child and as a parent, and one thing is certain about lullabies: they create strong feelings and memories. Clearly lullabies are held in the heart.
“I had the book “A treasury for one-year-olds” and sang the first half of it to my kids every single night for the first 4 years of their lives. They never got tired of those sung nursery rhymes. Some of my favorite memories of their babyhood!”
“Some of my favorite lullabies are Little Red Bird of the Lonely Moor, Lady, Lady and the song my grandmother sang to me, Mighty Like A Rose.* My daughter now sings it to my granddaughter. I feel like that song is a musical thread that has bound us together in a special way.”
(*On Lullaby Playlist 1)
Why are lullabies so powerful?
First, we are wired to be most comforted by the voice of someone we are bonded to. For your child, that’s you. Regardless of your ability to sing “well,” or in tune, your voice is the most beautiful voice to your child. Hearing gentle and repetitive singing from that special someone is especially soothing, and allows your child to learn to regulate their emotional state. Many studies show that live, sung lullabies reduce a baby’s heart and respiration rates, and sustain a quiet alert state, setting the stage for a restful sleep.
After retiring from teaching Music Together for over 20 years, my friend Becky now volunteers at a children’s hospital. Her role is to provide comfort and/or stimulation to the babies when the parents need a break and the nurses are spread thin. She sings lullabies to keep them soothed so their little bodies can use all their energy to heal and grow. Her work reminds us of a second characteristic of an effective lullaby practice. She said:
“In Music Together we teach that children thrive on repetition. My experience singing to the babies here has reaffirmed this in spades. Oftentimes, when calming a baby by singing a lullaby they like, they’ll start to fuss if I switch to a different one.
When I go back to the previous lullaby, they calm down again. So fascinating.”
Besides the repetition and the familiar voice of their loved one, what else? The emotive quality in the singer’s voice? The tempo the song is being sung? The calmness of the singer as they relax into the experience? The lyrics? The ritual? It is all of these things and more, and that last one, ritual, is key.
Put yourself in the booties of a baby. Their life is full of changes they cannot control, which surely is fascinating, but also overwhelming. Being able to anticipate what comes next allows the child to feel a sense of control. By creating routines and rituals you are helping your child build trust in his environment; It is one of the most empowering things we can do for our little ones. Pairing the power of ritual with a soothing lullaby sung by their favorite person, you, is magical.
Lullabies are just for babies
For a toddler or preschooler who is loving life and doesn’t want to stop playing for anything, an interactive lullaby ritual is a must-have. It creates a needed positive association with going to bed or taking a nap. Little ones love to participate by choosing the lullaby and by offering lyric substitution suggestions within the song. One of my favorite lullabies to use this way is a practice in both gratitude and creating a hopeful vision for the world. In the 3rd line of this lullaby authored by a young Russian boy and known as “May there always be Sunshine” * or also “Russian Folksong,” the child can choose what to acknowledge, whether it’s grandma or their new shoes.
“May there always be sunshine,
May there always be blue skies,
May there always be ______
May there always be me.”
Just to be sure to move on to a song with no words because otherwise they may continue to provide lyric suggestions for a very long time! (*see Raffi’s recording in Playlist 1)
Older children will often want to continue the lullaby ritual for many years, may sing lullabies to their dolls and siblings and may even try to put you to sleep with a song. Singing lullabies isn’t just for the recipient- stress is decreased significantly by the act of singing lullabies as your body releases oxytocin and you experience the warm fuzzies.
One of my favorite childhood memories is singing “Morning Has Broken*” to my sister from an adjoining bedroom and having her then sing it back to me. We’d take turns like this till we were too sleepy to continue. After a day that typically included some sort of conflict or drama between us, our bond was strengthened by singing. (*Playlist 2)
And as many sleepy singing parents know, the lullabies calm the grownups just as much as the children, sometimes more so. Have you ever been woken by a nudge and a little voice saying “Again, Again”?
Lindsy O's family has a strong lullaby routine, but not with a consistent or typical repertoire.
“My kids each have a favorite that they want for a while. One wanted Silent Night for more than a year. For another, I made up a lullaby about pandas that she likes to have adapted for the details of her own day. My son likes to have new lullabies about cars, trucks, dinosaurs, and space, spontaneously created when he chooses the topic. My older kids like jazz standards and show tunes, and sometimes request lullaby classics that I used as a first-time mom.”