Your Brilliant Baby in Week 26: Differentiating Lullabies & Play-Songs


Research shows that babies respond very differently emotionally to lullabies (think “Rock a Bye Baby”) and play songs (think “Where is Thumbkin?”). Learn why, and when to choose which.

Baby’s Brain around Week 26

You find yourself humming “Rock-a-Bye Baby” at naptime and bedtime—but what would happen if you took these moments to start singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”? Would your baby behave any differently? Scientists say yes: Lullabies and play-songs (sometimes called fingerplays) affect Baby in very different ways. Here’s how.

What the Research Shows

Researchers recorded mothers singing a song in a lullaby-style and a play-song-style to their six-month-old babies:

  • Play-song-style renditions were rated as being more brilliant, clipped, and rhythmic, and as having more smiling and more prominent consonants: “One-two-buc-kle-my-shoe….”
  • Lullaby-style renditions were characterized as being more airy, smooth, and soothing: “Luuuullabyyyyyye … and goodniiiiight….”

Adults observed the videotapes (without sound) of the babies listening to alternating lullaby-style and play-song-style songs and were able to determine—at above-chance levels—which music the infants were hearing.

Researchers determined that six-month-old babies respond to lullabies by turning their attention toward themselves and playing with their hands or sucking their thumbs. In contrast, they display externally directed responses to play-songs and behave in ways that seem to encourage adults to continue singing by bouncing, kicking, and looking intently at the person singing—that’d be you.

This ability to discriminate song type likely comes from your child’s capacity to recognize the emotional characteristics of a piece of music. Incredibly, this aspect of musical perception appears to be inborn!

Week 26 Brain Booster

Since babies obviously sense the emotional differences between play-songs and lullabies, choose music according to the emotional state you’d like your child to be in. “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” may not be the best way to communicate that it’s time to sleep—likewise, your CD of lullabies might put a damper on an energetic play session. (Here’s some help in choosing great kid music.)

Remember: The melody (rather than the words) is the message. The airy, smooth, and soothing feel of lullabies quiets your child; the rhyme, rhythm, and repetition of play-songs engage infants in direct interaction with the singer (again, you), thus entertaining him. For that play session, then, consider tunes with a distinct beat—whether waltzes or hip-hop—as research says they seem to facilitate the coordination of emotion between mother and infant.

Since music appears to be a central part of the crucial interaction that occurs between you and your baby as she develops, use music along with speech that sounds melodic or musical (like motherese) during your child’s first year of life.


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