Why ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby’ Rocks

Soothing bedtime tunes deliver a nice health boost

“You are lost and gone forever, oh my darlin’ Clementine.”

Somehow, for hundreds of years, these words have worked to soothe anxious babies into a deep slumber. “Clementine” is one of hundreds of lullabies used to coax children to sleep. The form is so popular, even pop stars find their music converted into the sleepy tunes.

Just take a look at the Rockabye Baby! series, which takes songs from stars like Taylor Swift and converts them into lullabies. But do lullabies actually do anything, or is the effect merely placebo?

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To find out, LifeZette spoke with Andrew James Pettit, a lecturer in the University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Ethnomusciology, who has studied the form.

The short answer is, yes.

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“Lullabies certainly affect children musically, culturally, psychologically, linguistically, and psychologically,” Pettit said. “There have been many studies done on the physiological effects that show lullabies can decrease heart rate and respiration (which calms the child.)”

My mother’s invented lullaby was about crawfish, Mardi Gras beads, and gumbo.

He pointed out that while some studies have “shown this in randomized clinical trials,” others “have shown that lullabies, silence, or fan noise have no appreciable effect on infant physiology.”

In other words, lullabies are difficult to study. But the research seems to stack in favor of them having an effect. One study from 1999 “found that infants became more self-focused when lullabies were performed in their presence” as opposed to play songs, which made them “more outwardly focused.”

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The songs don’t just help the children, either.

“Caregivers are equally affected,” Pettit said, citing a 1991 and a 2003 study that showed singing lullabies to “increase empathy, metal well-being, and bonding.”

So why are lullabies so effective?

“I don’t think we have a definitive answer as to why or how lullabies influence the child,” Pettit said, but he offered a theory.

“My informed opinion is that children are excellent observers and learn just about everything through imitations,” he said. “If a parent is able to sooth themselves by singing, the child will pick up on this and modulate their behavior.”

Pettit found this in his own home.

“When my children are crying, singing helps me keep my cool,” he said. “It gives me something to focus on.”

In turn, it helps his children keep theirs.

“It is immediately obvious that the tone of voice I use, or the way I interact with them, is reflected in their behavior.”

Anyone whose mother sang lullabies to them can likely remember the first time sleeping away from the house, homesick and scared, wanting nothing more than to hear those soft tunes.

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I certainly can. My mother had her own lullaby, one she invented that spoke of things from my home, New Orleans: crawfish, Mardi Gras beads, and gumbo. But the song was entirely her invention. It wasn’t based on a popular lullaby, but instead was something completely new.

Which begs the question: What the heck is a lullaby? If our mothers can invent them and Taylor Swift songs can be converted into them, what are the central tenets of this song form?

There are some “rules” — Pettit mentioned that most are generally composed with a regular double meter and no large leaps in melody — but I can assure you my mother wasn’t considering meter when singing to me. Nor is Pettit, so much, when he sings his children the song his dad sang to him: “I Ride an Old Paint,” which is not technically a lullaby. But it functioned as one, and therein lies the key.

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“What makes a lullaby a lullaby is that people use it as one,” Pettit said. “Almost any song can be slowed down and repeated enough to sound like something you would put a child to sleep with.”

In other words, sing whatever you’d like — the more meaningful the better. As he pointed out, lullabies connect families through time, through generations. My mother’s tale about a crawfish avoiding the gumbo is absurd, goofy, and still brings a smile to my face. When I have children, I hope it will bring a smile to their faces as well.

“To new parents, I would say to try and relish the time you have … to sing to your children,” Pettit said. “When the children are grown, you will look back with fondness on these times, and know that singing to your children is time well spent for everyone’s emotional, cultural, linguistic, and psychological growth.”

And it doesn’t cost a dime.

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