An article from The Norwegian Academy of Music
Absent-minded lullabying does not put your baby to sleep
The good news is that you needn't be a great singer.
Parents all over the world lull their babies to sleep with soothing songs.
“Lullabying is a heartfelt bonding experience for parents and children alike,” explains Lisa Bonnár, Research Fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.
“It can be important in establishing a child’s physical and psychological well-being,” she says.
Bonnár has studied parents who sing their children to sleep at night, and conducted interviews and video recordings with twenty lullabying parents.
Her findings, published in her recent PhD thesis, indicate that regardless of voice, pitch and musicality, children enjoy and benefit from their parents’ singing at bedtime.
Bonnár describes three beneficial effects of lullabying.
First of all, lullabying creates a unique musical connection that nourishes the parent-child relationship. The singing is experienced as a bonding moment in which the parent-child bond can be explored and reaffirmed.
Secondly, a nightly ritual of singing at bedtime helps establish bedtime routines for children over time. A predictable lullaby ritual can be reassuring and generate positive and shared expectations of going to bed.
Thirdly, parents experience lullabying as an effective means of soothing their baby and creating a calm night-time atmosphere. The singing actually gives parents a sense of having control of the bedtime routine, no matter what their musical talents or limitations may be.
Holistic baby well-being
Parents express care and love through singing, and thereby respond to babies’ need for closeness, a sense of presence, and safety.
A number of sensory elements are activated by lullabying, as parents walk, cradle, touch and use sounds, often simultaneously. Giving the baby a holistic experience of physical and psychological well-being is an inherent intention of lullabying.
However, absent-minded lullabying is unfulfilling – parents must be present in the act of singing.
If parents appear overly determined, or if the ritual becomes very predictable over time, or if the singing seems insensitive and mechanical, the child might sabotage the lullabying ritual. Children want to experience a connection through the song.
Naturally, many parents also use lullabies as a way to foster a fondness for music in their children. Lullabying then becomes part of a formative project.
Some choose to sing to their kids in order to establish a sense of security and comfort which they themselves lacked as children.
Parents also describe that children express a need to confide and communicate their own feelings during this bonding moment, and the lullaby ritual sometimes becomes an outlet for such confessions.
Contemporary Norwegian parents often prefer to sing happy and sweet songs, rather than sad heartbreakers. To create an uplifting atmosphere at the end of the day, they choose to sing children’s songs.
In the more traditional repertoire, however, lullabies often reflect adult concerns and frustrations; this is also the norm in many other nations’ lullaby traditions.
“Contemporary lullabying is first and foremost about parent-child bonding, and to a lesser extent an outlet for worries with a didactic intention of preparing the child for the tough realities of adult life, ” explains Bonnár.
“Today it is a positive ritual of closeness rather than a survival ritual.”
While fathers tend to sing whatever comes to mind, such as Beatles tunes or marching songs, the mothers are largely responsible for delivering traditional lullabies to the next generation, and actively use song books to learn new songs or to look up lullabies they recall from their own childhoods.
Some Norwegian lullabies (YouTube links):
Parents' creative side
Bedtime brings out a creative side in parents. Some parents feel self-conscious about the inadequacy of their own voice and musicality, but the children enjoy their singing nonetheless.
Parents develop creative techniques for soothing their children, making up words to familiar melodies or entire songs of their own.
Such techniques are often part of a strategy to manoeuvre the children into bedtime sleepiness; parents might begin with a brisk song corresponding to the child’s energy level, before gradually bringing down the pace and melody to a monotonous drone designed to “bore” the child to sleep.
Singing can be used as “leverage into drowsiness,” as one parent in the study put it.
All good things must come to and end
The lullabying ritual naturally ends as child begin to express a need for independence and no longer want their parents to put them to bed at night.
For many, it often comes to an abrupt end with the birth of other siblings.
In other cases, the ritual can go on for as long as until the child reaches the age of puberty.
Translated by: Nina Nielsen