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How Babies Benefit From Music


Published June 1, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


I held the small speaker up to my wife Shannon's perfectly round pregnant belly. We smiled at each other, both a little giddy. I pushed play. Paul McCartney's voice wafted into the air. We waited.

Almost 13 years later, I can't say for sure what we were expecting to happen. Would sending some Beatles or Chopin into our unborn baby's liquid home make him smarter? Perhaps plant the seeds of creative brilliance to come? Or did it just feel good to begin nurturing that tiny creature we couldn't wait to meet?

Maybe, it turns out, a little bit of all those things.

Many of us have heard about the supposed benefits music can have on babies. We've seen the CDs and playlists of Mozart and Bach tailored to boost brain activity or soothe colic. And parents around the world instinctively hum or sing lullabies as part of bedtime or to calm a crying baby. Music, it seems, has long been part of how we communicate with and love our babies.

But is there proof that music benefits a baby's brain and body? Let's dig in.

Somewhere between 16 and 18 weeks of pregnancy, babies hear their first sounds. By 24 weeks, their ears are developing quickly, and in the last weeks of pregnancy, unborn babies will sometimes turn their heads or react to voices and noises. It's hard not to laugh at the image of a fetus nodding along to some Stevie Wonder or Beyoncé in the womb. But given the known brain benefits of music, why not crank up the tunes before that due date? Just not too loud.

Of course, once babies are out in the world, the effects are far easier to measure.

New research done by the Music Lab at Harvard University found that, not only do babies experience calming effects from listening to familiar voices sing, they also respond positively to unfamiliar melodies or lullabies in a non-native language. Both produce decreased heart rate and pupil dilation, as well as reduced electrodermal activity — three measures of excitement and stress in infants.

Scientists at the University of Washington also found that sessions that combined music and play sparked improved brain processing in 9-month-old babies. "This means that early, engaging musical experiences can have a more global effect on cognitive skills, " said the study's lead author Christina Zhao.

Teachers at Robin's Nest Children's Center in Burlington, where both my children went, make music a regular part of their preschool and baby curriculum. Believe me, I know. I still can't get "On Top of Spaghetti" out of my head.

"Instrumental music is beneficial sensory input for babies without being overwhelming," said Robin's Nest associate teacher Caitlin D'Onofrio. "Listening to music and dancing are wonderful ways to support [kinesthetic] development and create shared experiences."

Turns out music also has some profound therapeutic benefits and is regularly used to help babies recover during stays in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Music therapy by a licensed therapist can actually improve a premature baby's breathing, heart rate, feeding and sleep — and even sometimes reduce that NICU stay. Music is also a stress reliever for worried parents.

Burlington-based music therapist Jennifer DeBedout, who has spent nearly 30 years in the field, has seen the benefits of music firsthand.

"Songs and chants are great mediums for learning and exploring many of the developmental milestones from birth to 5 years of age," DeBedout said. "Children pair songs with movement, and it helps boost their brains and engages creativity."

For most families and parents, though, the benefits of early exposure to music are likely to feel a bit more anecdotal. My sister-in-law, Maegen Curley, a school services clinician at Burlington High School, remembers playing music for her two children when they were babies. "I think music got us all through a time of little sleep and not knowing what end was up," she said. "Music definitely would settle [our older son] down at times. And impromptu kitchen dance parties to shake out the grumpies are always good. Did it make my kids smarter and more interested in music? Not sure. But we can hope!"

Though science presents a convincing case for playing music for your baby, I still go back to why I think Shannon and I really held that speaker up to her pregnant belly all those years ago and pushed play. It felt good. It felt right. And that's all that really mattered.

So reach for that guitar. Set up that speaker. Sing a happy tune. Just let the music play.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.