What is maternal singing? Maternal singing is a term used to describe the way parents sing more expressively, more slowly, and at a higher pitch level when singing to an infant. This mentoring is done to promote emotional regulation in early years and enhances memory and learning in preschool years. Studies of maternal singing focus on expressive features that convey maternal feelings or intentions and their consequences for infants. In the first year of life, when self-regulatory skills are limited, the caregivers’ management of infants’ negative emotions is crucial for the subsequent development of self-regulation skills.

Mothers smile much more when they sing to infants than when they talk to infants. These smiles can be heard as well as seen – and they make the vocalizations sound happier! Studies show that playful or arousing maternal singing is very effecting in reducing infant distress, and that soothing maternal singing such as lullabies are effective to promote infant tranquility and sleep. Play songs like nursery rhymes and stories can be used to promote social stimulation.

You may think this sounds strange and that an infant so small wouldn’t know the difference if they were sung to or not. Interestingly enough, babies have quite an impressive perception of pitch, rhythm, and meter. Infants can notice a small pitch change of one semitone in a single note of a melody after hearing several repetitions of about 5 to 10 notes. This is even true when the altered melody is presented in a different key! An infant’s perception of meter is influenced by the pattern of movement they experience while listening. For example, infants bounced on every second beat vs. every third beat respond to different rhythm patterns thereafter.

Maternal singing occurs most commonly in face-to-face interactions, so visual gestures are an integral part of the performance. As such, infants with deaf parents can achieve the same emotional regulation and stimulation with slow, rhythmic, and exaggerated signing that is expressive and dance-like.

Here is what the Developmental Path to Singing would look like:

  1. Syllable babbling – “bababa”, “badagoo”
  2. Vocal babbling – varied syllables noticeably differ in intonation with rising and falling pitch
  3. Toddler response changes – having your child fill in the blank of words in a song (e.g. Mom sings “The Itsy Bitsy…” and the child responds “spider”)
  4. Synchronized singing – baby and caregiver singing together in unison
  5. Toddler pleasures in singing alone – this is a sign of functional emotional self-regulation
  6. Toddler invents their own songs – this shows musical creativity and developing play skills
  7. Preschooler sings song that promote learning – songs like The ABC’s and The Days of The Week are used to build cognitive and language skills
  8. Child gains implicit knowledge of the conventions of Western tonal music – at this stage it could be further beneficial to begin structured musical lessons that will further enhance development, mental health, and abstract reasoning!

This blog only scratches the surface of the benefits of early exposure to music and singing for children. More research is needed in the field to include fathers and other caregivers in future studies, as well as comparing the effects of live singing with recorded singing. If you found this interesting, hopefully you will keep it in mind the next time you sing to your baby and notice the impacts of maternal singing!

By: Sara VanDyk, B.A. Linguistics & Psychology

Resources:

Trehub, S. E., & Gudmundsdottir, H. R. (2019). Mothers as singing mentors for infants. In G. F. Welch, D. M. Howard, & J. Nix (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of singing (pp. 455–469). Oxford: Oxford University Press.