Catching Zzz's

How To Optimize A Lullaby For Maximum Sleepiness

When it comes to lullabies, the quality of a parent's voice is less important than rhythm, repetition, and knowing when to stop the song.

Originally Published: 
Father putting baby son to sleep on his arms at home.
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Lullabies, like white noise, work because babies are not gestated in a velvety, sound-proofed dark. The inside of a pregnant person is more like a private room on a yacht where a party is going down: It’s noisy, cramped, and there is plenty of rocking and swaying. A baby sleeps and is comforted best in similarly dynamic environments. When a lullaby, sung in a familiar voice, is paired with swaddling and rocking, it sails kids right to sleep. All the more reason to know how to optimize their power.

Lullabies are so effective that their use in neonatal intensive care units helps preemies sleep, feed, and even heal, according to research from The Louis & Lucille Armstrong Music Therapy Program at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. The researchers based their study on their use of “songs of kin,” which have a deep cultural, familial, or personal significance to a child’s parents.

“We take that music and we create a lullaby by taking specific rhythmic meter and finding the correct range for the parent,” explains music therapist and clinical director for the program John Mondanaro, Ph.D. These may be traditional ageless songs, or decidedly modern, he explains. “A song of kin can be something that the parents are bonding over. It can be pop. We’ve done Guns n’ Roses.”

Happily, proper lullaby technique does not require a parent to sound anything like John Legend, or Axl Rose for that matter. “A lot of parents don’t think they can actually sing or create,” says Mondanaro. “But we work with them as therapists to create lullabies that are custom to their children.” The trick is in having a connection to the song and in giving it the soothing meter and melody that allows a lullaby to work.

That means parents who fell in love to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” need only make a couple changes to make it even more appropriate as a lullaby for their baby. Chief among the elements you need is simplicity. “That way the music isn’t overwhelming for the infant,” Mondanaro says. He suggests that parents focus on a chorus or a melodic motif in the song that allows for repetition in order to create a “mantra-like lullaby.”

He also suggests changing the song’s meter to 3/4 or 6/8 time for a classic lullaby rhythm. For those who aren’t musically inclined, 3/4 time will be familiar from waltzes, counted “One-two-three, One-two-three.” Many children’s songs already have this rhythm which gives them a rolling and swaying quality. “It becomes very easy even for parents who aren’t musical to have this piece that they created for their infant,” Mondanaro says.

It’s also important to know when to stop the song. If a baby does fall asleep to your singing, they will likely wake up when you’ve stopped, explains nurse practitioner Maile Moore from the Sleep Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “If the child falls asleep to a lullaby and in the middle of the night they wake up to silence, it can really throw a child off,” she says.

The best idea is to have the lullaby be the end of a nightly ritual. Make the song consistent and sing it until the kid is just drowsy and not fully asleep. “Just make sure it doesn’t become a sleep association so that they don’t depend on it to fall asleep,” Moore says. That’s because a parent could get into a trap where every time the child wakes, they need the song to fall back asleep again. And there are zero parents who want to be singing lullabies at 3 a.m.

“Hearing a parent’s voice and hearing the song is soothing,” says Moore. “It can be a great part of the routine as the final steps to bedtime.”

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