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Knowledge zone

Reasons to sing to babies

  • singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits
  • the elation may come from endorphins, a hormone released by singing, which is associated with feelings of pleasure
  • or it might be from oxytocin, another hormone released during singing, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress - Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness
  • the benefits of singing regularly seem to be cumulative - In one study, singers were found to have lower levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress
  • singing traditional lullabies and nursery rhymes to babies and infants before they learn to speak, is "an essential precursor to later educational success and emotional wellbeing", argues Sally Goddard Blythe in her book, The Genius of Natural Childhood - "Song is a special type of speech. Lullabies, songs and rhymes of every culture carry the 'signature' melodies and inflections of a mother tongue, preparing a child's ear, voice and brain for language." - The Guardian

Babies learn when we sing

  • bonding – When you sing to your baby, they bond with you and your voice
  • language – Language is in itself musical, and when you sing and speak, your baby learns about words, language, and communication - Through your singing, baby’s language comprehension begins
  • singing names – A baby can learn his name by hearing it in songs - Try substituting your baby’s name for other words in songs so he hears his name sung over and over again
  • love – All of the above boils down to using your singing voice as a way to express love. Babies don't care if you are a great singer - They only care that you are singing to them! In their eyes (and their ears), you'll be a star!

Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, 10 Ways Babies Learn When We Sing To Them

Steps to begin

  • sing with them facing you
  • singing slowly - helps your baby hear the words and see the actions
  • enjoy and smile
  • keep it simple - Keep the number of words to a minimum
  • babies love repetition and learn from it - Repeat key lyrics and actions
  • different songs have an effect on emotions, they can be upbeat and energising or soothing and calming

Effect of crying on babies

  • bodily arousal system becomes out of balance
  • baby’s body is primed for fight, flight, freeze - primitive brain responses
  • baby’s heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, tense digestive system, sweating
  • body and brain want stability

When a baby is left howling in their room:

  • high levels of toxic stress hormones wash over their brain
  • there is a withdrawal of opioids in their brain
  • the brain and body’s stress response systems become hardwired for oversensitivity
  • pain circuits are activated just as they would be as if they were physically hurt

Effect of crying on adults

  • can trigger our alarm system
  • can create fear, rage, separation distress in us
  • blocks our feel good chemicals such as serotonin, opioids, dopamine


  • most babies stop crying when picked up - This is not spoiling them
  • smell of familiar person may help soothe a distressed baby
  • warmth helps release ‘feel good’ chemicals
  • gentle touch helps release ‘feel good’ chemicals
  • babies have emotions
  • babies can’t calm themselves down
  • babies pick up on YOUR emotions

Support a crying baby by staying calm inside yourself, smiling and saying, “Oh you’re crying, I wonder if you are feeling sad, I think you’re telling me you want to be picked up and cuddled.”


  • comforting slows down my panic
  • comforting helps regulate my bodily arousal systems
  • close body contact can bring my autonomic nervous system back into balance

Ready to play

  • engagement cues - baby wants to be with you and take part
  • what you might see - smiling, chuckling, turning towards you, bright face and eyes, relaxed movements, babbling or ‘talking sounds’, reaching out to you
  • disengagement cues - baby needs a break from whatever it is experiencing at that time - This may mean it needs a rest or a quiet cuddle and some reassurance
  • what you might see - crying, squirming, fussing and upset, turning head away, back arching, dull looking eyes and face, turning away from you, yawning, jerky, restless movements

Awake / Alert state

This is a good opportunity to connect with each other and a time when they will want to play.

You may see all the engagement cues described above and your baby may:

  • turn towards you and the sound of your voice
  • be wide eyed and maintain good eye contact
  • smile
  • their mouth may be open, moving with the tongue sticking out, like they are trying to talk - This is called ‘pre speech’
  • their arms may be rising up to their head with their fingers opening, and possibly point

Top tips

  • following babies’ signals and not your planned schedule is vital for babies learning
  • learning is about connecting with babies
  • playing is: having fun, being passionate and building relationships
  • repetition is crucial for babies’ brains and playing together enables this to happen - When your baby drops a toy on the floor, you pick it up, and they drop it again repeatedly is playing together, it’s great for a baby’s brain, building connections
  • play is a combination of the Social Engagement System and sympathetic regulation (Porges 2011)

  • from a baby's point of view if someone loves you and sees you as lovely you are more likely to have lovely feelings and grow in confidence
  • build a trusting relationship by comforting your baby if they need you
  • use everyday routines; e.g. changing and mealtimes to love, talk, sing and laugh with your baby
  • kissing and loving touches releases opioids and oxytocin in the brain which helps babies feel happy and helps their brains grow healthily

  • smiles, waves, cries, facial expressions, body movements and eye contact are some of the ways in which babies try to communicate with you

  • the brain of a three year old who is persistently and significantly abused is smaller in size and weight than a three year old who has had caring, loving nurturing relationships
  • research by Robin Balbernie shows how extreme neglect means there is negligible development in the temporal lobe area of the brain which governs expression and processing of emotion - brain will not regenerate where grey matter has atrophied. Some limited compensation possible

  • babies know the sound of their mother's voice when they are born
  • babies show a preference for a human face when they are born
  • babies will start communicating with another person as soon as they are born
  • a new-born baby has approximately 100 billion brain cells but few connections
  • a baby's brain is unfinished at birth

  • comforting and soothing babies helps develop their frontal lobes that then helps them deal with stress
  • babies need to be helped to calm down by sensitive, calming people around them, otherwise their brains will be hyper-aroused for too long
  • kissing and loving touches release chemicals in the brain which helps babies feel happy and helps the brain grow healthily
  • the developing brain in the first years of life is highly vulnerable to stress
  • repeatedly leaving a baby to cry uncomforted means that high levels of stress hormones are released - The brain may grow connections that means as an adult they may find it hard to deal with stress
  • most babies will stop crying when you pick them up - Close body contact helps them release the chemicals that calm

Last updated 20 April 2023