Lullabies are found in most cultures around the world and parents naturally find themselves singing those tunes when it’s time to get their baby to sleep. But what makes a lullaby a lullaby? Clinical researcher and music therapist, Caitlin Kjeldsen shares with us the defining characteristics of lullabies and why they are so important to babies (and parents) everywhere.

​Caitlin Kjeldsen, MT-BC is a Board-Certified Music Therapist and Graduate Research Associate in the Center for Perinatal Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Speech and Hearing Science at The Ohio State University where her research focuses on deepening our understanding of the auditory environment’s impact on infant neurodevelopment, as well as developing novel auditory interventions to optimize outcomes. Caitlin is particularly interested in leveraging caregiver voice and exploring the role of infant-directed speech and singing in promoting neurodevelopment.

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Transcription for Episode 4: Why Your Baby Loves Lullabies


Welcome to Growing Up Brainy, your portal into what’s happening inside your baby’s brain. We interview the experts, demystify the science and help you nurture your child towards a bright, open future.


Hi there, I’m your host, Amy Husted, startup addict boy, mom of two, and chief commercial officer here at smallTalk. On today’s episode, I have the pleasure of talking with Caitlin Kjeldsen. She’s a clinical researcher and a NICU music therapist. Before we just jump into our topic, though, I would love Caitlin if you just spent a couple of minutes telling us a bit more about your background and what you do.



Sure. So thank you so much for having me. Like Amy said, my name is Caitlin Kjeldsen and I am a board certified music therapist and clinical researcher. I have worked in the NICU for a number of years and I am currently working on a PhD in speech and hearing science. So I’m really passionate about deepening our understanding of how we can use music to support infant development. And much of my work has been rooted in the use of music in the NICU.


So for those of you who aren’t familiar, the NICU is the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and that’s where infants who are sick at birth or who need specialized care have a stay. But I’m also really interested in helping parents learn how to use music to support their baby’s development at home. So my work has really evolved into learning about infant-directed speech and infant-directed singing and how we can use those to support infants’ cognitive development, language development, and really overall neuro development. So I’m excited to share a little bit of my passion with you all today.



Awesome. And we are so excited to have you here. I mean, everything that you do, everything that you’re studying and that you are about is so much of what we’ve built smallTalk on, especially with the topic we’re going to jump into today. So on today’s episode, we are going to talk about lullabies. Now, all the parents listening probably know a few lullabies and are somewhat familiar with a general understanding of what a lullaby is. But Caitlin, in speaking with you over the course of our relationship here, I have learned that lullabies actually are a lot deeper and have a lot more to them than we think.


So let’s just start at the basics. What is a lullaby?



So a lullaby is a song that is used to help quiet a baby or to help the baby transition to sleep. So really, any song can be sung as a lullaby. But what’s important is that it is sung in a style that is quieting. So it needs to be soft, relatively slow, and most importantly needs to be directed to the infant. So we call this specific type of singing infant-directed singing. That just means that we’re really focusing on the baby and responding to their needs and their cues by exaggerating certain words, lengthening pauses between phrases, and being overly emotional in our singing.


Lullabies exist in most cultures around the world and have actually existed for millennia. In fact, the earliest lullabies that have been identified to date all the way back to about 2000 B.C. So that’s a really long time ago. There’s definitely this instinct or some sort of inherent natural tendency to sing to a baby when they’re upset or when you’re trying to get them to go to sleep. So I’m here today to help you understand a little bit of the science behind that instinct.



That’s awesome. So what actually makes a difference between lullabies and other songs that we might sing to our children? What is it that differentiates them?



So the biggest difference between a lullaby and other types of songs is really the style that we sing it in and the purpose behind it. So we may actually use the same song at different times and for different reasons. So, for instance, sometimes we may sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to help get our baby to sleep. And other times maybe we sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star when baby is awake and playful and we’re trying to get baby to coo or smile. So the one version is going to be calming and quieting and have those characteristics I mentioned before, while the other is going to be arousing, alerting, and really engage the baby’s attention. And that’s what we would call a play song or a learning song. Really the only difference between a lullaby and other songs that we sing to our babies is the purpose behind it and how we sing it.



So, Caitlin, you just mentioned that lullabies exist in every culture around the world. And this is something that has fascinated me, as you know, in my role here at smallTalk and collecting lullabies, songs, and stories to be used in our product. And so I’ve seen that. I’ve seen that they do exist in other cultures all around the world. And I’ve also noticed this common theme that they are almost all about wishing for your baby to sleep. And it kind of makes me laugh as a mom, having been there, it kind of made me wonder, are lullabies more about or maybe it’s both, more about calming the baby down and getting the baby ready for sleep? Or are we just doing this because we need to feel a little bit of peace in sometimes frustrating situations? So just curious, what does make these spread across cultures? And is there really like a benefit there beyond making ourselves feel good?



Well, singing is definitely mutually beneficial for you and your baby and can help us calm ourselves down. But the benefits of singing to our babies are innumerable, and that’s for both lullabies and play songs. In fact, the reasons that make lullabies so calming for our babies are some of the same reasons as we may find them calming. So one of those reasons that singing a lullaby helps calm the baby and aids in their transition to sleep is because music is predictable and it is structured across time.


So what I mean is that when we hear music, it has a progression and our brains know what is coming next. We know that when we’re in the middle of a phrase, it’s likely going to sound one way. And when it’s the end of a phrase It will sound a different way. So for any of you music nerds out there, we know that if we get to the dominant chord, the line is not finished yet. We know that it’s going to keep going and eventually resolve. And more often than not, that resolution occurs when we arrive at the tonic and babies know this too. So when a piece of music doesn’t resolve to the tonic or doesn’t follow that predictable progression, our brain thinks, whoa, what just happened? And it piques our interest. Especially as adults. Say there’s a deceptive cadence. And for us as adults, that’s interesting, grabs our attention, makes us want to listen more, and our babies recognize that unexpected progression as well.


However, this change to what they expect to come next is alerting, which is the opposite of quieting and can keep our baby from falling asleep and then that can eventually lead to overstimulation. Similarly, when there are multiple instruments playing multiple lines of melodies, harmonies, you name it, that’s a lot of auditory information for the baby to process. And that’s also arousing. With that many lines and that many instruments and different timbres to process, that can be too much.


So this is why sung lullabies without any instruments are going to be best for your baby. We want to make sure that we’re not providing more information than their brains can handle. So that’s why we typically say to wait on classical music until they’re a bit older.


So I said the music is predictable. We talked about that. But I also said that it’s structured across time. And this is another really important concept when it comes to using music to support your baby. Music has rhythm and a pulse, and you might find yourself tapping your toe to the beat of a piece of music. This is what I mean when I say music is organized in time. And as humans, we’re really good at finding that pulse. You may actually already use rhythm to help calm your baby without even realizing it. When you bounce or you rock or you sway side to side, there’s rhythm to that movement. And it’s this organization of beats that is especially effective in quieting an upset infant because that music is organized in time, it can help a baby’s brain organize as well, and the infant will entrain to that rhythm. And then that is what allows them to transition to sleep more easily. So next time you’re singing to your infant when they’re crying or really upset, try matching the rhythm of your bouncing or your swaying to your singing and see what happens.



I love that. And I am a music nerd myself. I haven’t played an instrument in quite a while, but I did spend some time in college as a music major before switching to psychology. So I love that you nerded out there a bit with all those the technical terms and what’s really happening in the music and how intentional is. But I also love hearing and seeing that it’s so natural. So we might have those terms in order to define and identify what it is we’re already naturally doing. And that that bounce, that baby bounce while you’re singing and trying to calm them with the rhythm of the lullaby, your singing. I think every mom, every dad that’s listening has probably done that. Well, we are going to take a quick minute and we will be right back. 


The Growing Up Brainy podcast is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy, results in what we like to call brain magic, wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and getting them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Egg launching this fall of 2021.


OK, so Caitlin, you and I, both musical nerds to some level, you a little more than I, which I love, but not every parent out there listening feels that confident about music and being musical and singing to their baby. So what I’d love to do with the rest of our time here is to talk about some tangible tips, advice for parents, how to engage their baby in simple ways through song. And, you know, kind of how should parents feel–does it matter if they have a good voice or are they going to ruin their children’s future musicality if they don’t have it all together? How does this all work?



Yeah, so first and most importantly, voice is best, especially your voice. It doesn’t matter what you sound like. Your voice is most familiar to your baby and your voice is also their favorite. So you don’t have to sound perfect. But if you sing to them, they’re getting this language input. And that’s highly important for language development. Not only that, they get to listen to you sing and want greater bonding opportunity is there? However, I do know that singing to your baby might not always be possible, so you may choose to use a recording and that is OK.


And if you’re going to play a recording for your baby, try to limit it to one voice or one voice and a single instrument just to ensure that they’re not being overstimulated. When you’re singing to your baby, you’re able to react to them and their needs and their cues in real-time. But a recording can’t do that. So we try to error on the side of caution and have it less complex when you play a recording. Another important thing to remember is to ensure there’s a time limit for it to stop. About 20 minutes is a good spot. And then also remember that we use different types of music for different activities, napping versus playing. And while it’s OK to use some of the same songs, be sure that you’re presenting it in an appropriate style. So much more quiet when it’s about nap time and much more exciting and alerting when you’re playing



Awesome! So you mentioned stopping after 20 minutes so as not to overstimulate. So is there anything that we should watch out for? Anything we shouldn’t do? Is it possible to sing too many lullabies to your baby?



When your baby is awake, you can sing to your baby as much as you want. Sing while you’re changing their diaper while you’re in the car or whatever you want. You can narrate what’s happening. You can sing about the trees, about the birds, whatever. The most important thing, though, is when baby is sleeping, baby needs silence. Their brains are so busy forming connections and making pathways during infancy and silence is crucial in order to provide the time they need in order to strengthen and consolidate all these pathways.


So you can have that recording on, but make sure it stops and it turns off once your baby is asleep. They need to have this quiet environment in order to allow for this critical brain development to happen. And then once they wake up, sing your heart out and sing as much as you want.



I love that. I mean, what parent doesn’t like to hear that their baby sometimes needs silence? I am very happy to enjoy some silence as a mom, especially when my kids were that little. OK, so we’ve learned that voice is best. We can’t sing too much to our little ones, but if we’re playing a recording for baby, we should shut it off after about 20 minutes, not overstimulate. And we should try to be keeping those to either just voice or adding one instrument.


But I know that something super popular out there is to introduce your baby to classical music. So I’d love to know how does that fit in? Is that appropriate for little ones? If not, when does it become appropriate? And what do we even mean by appropriate? Does it do anything positive, negative, neutral? Tell me about that.



Yeah. So there’s this myth about classical music making babies smarter, but that’s really just a myth. And the reality is that classical music is really too complex for a newborn and young infant’s brains. And it can actually be detrimental because like we talked about before, there’s that complexity and the layering of different instruments and different musical lines. And if you’re trying to get your baby to fall asleep, it’s so exciting, which is what makes it interesting to us as adults, but that complexity is not going to allow your baby to fall asleep very easily, and we know that sleep is so, so important as infants learn and grow. So especially in infancy, trying to keep it voice only or voice and one instrument until they’re a bit older. And then you can watch your baby and see how they respond, maybe introduce it when they’re alert and they’re awake and see if they’re excited, if it’s engaging. But keep away from that classical music as a bedtime song for at least a while, at least until they’re about six months to a year old.



Well, Caitlin, thank you so much for sharing your time and your insights with us today. And for those of you listening, those parents out there, I hope you heard that when it comes to lullabies, voice is best and your voice is the best of the best. So you don’t have to be nervous about it. You don’t have to be uncomfortable. All you need to do is respond to your baby, interact with your voice and with your emotions. Turning on that baby talk is actually really good for them. It’s not silly. I know some people think it is, but it’s not silly. It’s great for them and for their development. And most importantly, you heard it here, moms and dads, silence and rest and sleep is good for baby. Not just for your sanity, because we all need that sometimes, but for their language development, for their brain development and for their overall wellness.


Well, that is all we have for you today. Thanks so much for joining us on Growing Up Brainy. So till next time we hope you’ll subscribe, leave us a review, or best of all, follow on Instagram to join in the conversation.

Growing Up Brainy is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic-- wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and gaining them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Paci™, launching in 2023.

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