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Parents’ Singing to Fetus and Newborn Enhances Their Well-being, Parent-Infant Attachment, & Soothability: Part One

February 19th, 2013 by avatar

Regular contributor Penny Simkin shares her experiences with parents who sing to their baby in utero and then continue after birth and looks at what the research says about this practice in this two part blog piece.  Part two can be found here. Join me in reading about some unique situations that Penny shares as she explores this opportunity for parents to bond with their unborn child.  - Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager.

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People have sung to their babies forever. Every culture has lullabies and children’s songs that are passed down through the generations. New ones are written and shared and the custom goes on –a rich part of the fabric of human civilization. These songs are designed to relax babies, calm their fears, or entertain and amuse them throughout childhood. As we have learned more about the life and capabilities of the fetus, we have realized that the fetus can hear clearly for months before birth, and also can discriminate sounds and develop preferences for some sounds over others. Furthermore, at birth, newborns respond to familiar sounds by becoming calm and orienting toward the source of the sound, and even indicate their preferences for familiar voices and words over the unfamiliar.

Newborn babies prefer their parents’ and other familiar voices over those of strangers (1), and they prefer hearing a story that their mother had read frequently in utero rather than an unfamiliar story or the familiar one read by someone other than their mother (2).  Fetuses hear, remember, have preferences, respond to, and discriminate among differences — in sounds, music, voices.

These exciting findings have inspired educators to advocate prenatal learning through recordings played through a mother’s abdomen (of languages, music, and other things). They have inspired birth activists and baby advocates to provide a safe enriching environment for the fetus. Advocates of prenatal bonding emphasize communication between parent and unborn child as a powerful way to strengthen the bond.

I’d like to offer my take on this phenomenon and urge everyone who works with expectant parents to tell them about some unique and heart-warming benefits of singing or reciting rhymes to their unborn babies.

I think my interest in parents singing to their babies prenatally began in the 1980s when I first read Michel Odent’s book, “Birth Reborn”(3). Odent is a French physician who has always been ahead of his time. He had a unique and original maternity care program at his hospital in Pithiviers, France. His book had a great influence on my understanding of normal birth, and the book is still worth reading today, along with all his subsequent ones. One lovely aspect of his program is particularly relevant to the topic of this blog post. The program included a weekly singing group at the hospital, attended by pregnant women, their partners, families with young babies, the midwives, and Odent himself. The group was led by an opera singer who believed singing to be important for fetuses, babies and those who care for them. Odent’s account inspired me to invite Jamie Shilling, a folk singer who had recently taken my birth class, to bring her guitar and her baby to my classes a half hour early each week and sing with the expectant parents. That went on very successfully for several class series, then the groups decided to combine and carry on in a monthly sing- along for expectant parents and new families, in a private home –Although the groups  eventually disbanded, they provided many parents with opportunities to sing together and connect with their babies and each other in relaxing and peaceful surroundings. A high point during that time was when Michel Odent came to Seattle to give a conference and he agreed to come to one of our sing-alongs. See the photo of Jamie leading the group of expectant and new parents, with Michel Odent and myself participating. He taught us the song, “Little Black Cat” in French.

© Penny Simkin

I couldn’t help but think during those times, how the unborn and new babies must love hearing their parents singing. Seeing the parents caressing the mother’s belly as they sang was heartwarming. That happened  in the mid- 1980s, when much research on the capabilities of the unborn and newborn baby was beginning to be published. Recalling those special gatherings, I have always suggested to my students in childbirth class that they sing to their unborn babies, or play their favorite recorded music, with the thought that the baby will remember it and be soothed by it after birth.

But it was one couple, whom I served as a birth doula, who took my suggestion to another level, and showed me much more about the value of singing to the unborn baby. They were having their second child, hoping for a VBAC. When they discovered that they were having a boy, they decided to give their baby the song, “Here Comes the Sun” and sang it to him often during pregnancy. The VBAC was not possible, and as the cesarean was underway, and the baby boy, crying lustily, was raised for the parents to see, the father began belting out the baby’s song. Though the mother didn’t have a strong voice under the circumstances, she also sang. The baby turned his head, turned his face right toward his father and calmed down while his father sang. Time stopped. As I looked around the operating room, I saw tears appear on the surgical masks.

It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and it was that event that taught me the value, not only of singing prenatally, but also, singing the same song every day. Not only does the baby hear his or her parents’ voices, not only does he or she hear music, but the baby also gets to know one song very well. Familiarity adds another feature to this concept, because we know that fetuses have memory and prefer the familiar. Think for a moment about what this might have meant to our cesarean-born baby –suddenly being removed from the warmth, wetness, and dimness of the womb with its mother’s reassuring heartbeat, into the cold bright noisy operating room. The baby’s transition to extrauterine life is hectic and full of new sensations. He cries reflexively, but perhaps also out of shock and discomfort. Then he hears something familiar – voices and music and the sounds of words that he has heard many times before – something he likes. He calms down, and seeks the source of this familiar song. Everyone present is moved by this gift to the baby from his parents.

I’ve become passionate about this idea as a way to enhance bonding between parents and babies, but also as a unique and very practical measure for soothing a fussing baby or a sick baby who can’t be held or breastfed. Please join me on Thursday, for Part Two on this topic when I will continue the discussion including research evidence that supports this concept: practical suggetions for childbirth professionals to share with expectant parents; and some very endearing film clips of families singing to their babies.

References:

1. Brazelton B. Cramer B. (1991)The Earliest Relationship: Parents, Infants, and The Drama Of Early Attachment . Da Capo Press Cambridge, MA.

2. De Casper A. 1974, as described in Klaus M, Klaus P, Kennell J. 2000. Your Amazing Newborn. Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA.

3. Odent M. 1984, Birth Reborn. Pantheon Books: New York 

Cesarean Birth, Childbirth Education, Doula Care, Guest Posts, Infant Attachment, Newborns, Parenting an Infant, Vaginal Birth After Cesarean (VBAC) , , , , , ,

  1. February 19th, 2013 at 08:02 | #1

    Devon,
    I love your story! YOur baby will always love Emmy Lou.
    Penny

  2. February 19th, 2013 at 14:09 | #2

    What an inspiring photo of you, Michelle Odent and your musical childbirth class attendees. Thank you for caring for women, babies and families is this important way Penny!

  3. avatar
    Denise Hynd
    February 19th, 2013 at 16:37 | #3

    Love the photos of a young Michel and Penny!

  4. avatar
    Connie Sultana
    February 19th, 2013 at 22:29 | #4

    Such a simple, yet valuable tool. There are times that I feel concerned that parents may not be connecting to their little ones before birth, and this is such a straight forward way for them to begon. There is a wonderful video clip of parents singing to a newborn and the baby instantly calming. I think it runs during the credits to a child birth related dvd like Orgasmic Birth or something fairly easily available. If anyone knows the dvd clip I am talking about- please let me know! As always Penny – thank you for your wisdom. You were with us during this weekend’s doula workshop in spirit.

  5. February 20th, 2013 at 09:12 | #5

    Connie, Check out tomorrow’s S & S. We’re posting a video showing some lovely example of before and after singing. It may contain the clip you’re referring to. The trailer you me be referring to is the one for “There’s a Baby: A Film for Children about Birth and the New Baby, a film that I have just produced.
    Penny

  6. February 20th, 2013 at 09:13 | #6

    Sorry about the typos. Yikes!

  7. avatar
    Jackie Coleman
    February 22nd, 2013 at 14:52 | #7

    Hi. My name Jackie Coleman. In 1994 I conducted a research study on the effects of male/female singing/speaking voices on premature infants for my Masters: (please see) 1)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cLR7Ak0Dh8&feature=plcp 2) http://www.barcelonapublishers.com/IJAM/IJAM_VOL5_NO2.pdf 3) http://www.enfamil.com/app/iwp/enf10/content.do?csred=1&r=3538790022&iwpst=B2C&id=%2fConsumer_Home3%2fPremature3%2fPremature_Articles%2fmusic_therapy&Failed_Reason=Invalid+timestamp,+engine+has+been+restarted&com.broadvision.session.new=Yes&dm=enf&Failed_Page=%2fiwp%2fenf10%2fcontent.do&ls=0&BV_UseBVCookie=no&ls=9 4) http://search.lib.byu.edu/byu/id:byu_unicorn2031303 & 5) http://search.lib.byu.edu/byu/id:byu_unicorn1492527. We looked at 40 minutes of intervention for 4 consecutive days. The study was very positive in helping infants thrive through music intervention (more relaxed state in heart and behavioral state, greater oxygen saturation, better weight gain, more caloric intake, earlier leave from hospital by nearly 3 days, etc.). I can only imagine how longer time periods and more days of music in the NICU would help. The Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, where we conducted the study, restructured its whole unit based on the results we saw for better sound control on the environment. I have the entire study on videotape if ever it needed to be revisited. My main interest in studying the male and female voices stemmed from: 1) wanting to bring couples closer together in care of their infants 2) help males feel more involvement in the nurturing process of infants and 3) bring a new twist into the research (which had never looked at the male voice before, only the female). The study showed the premature infants responded equally to both male and female voices, but the music helped soothe the babies while the speaking aroused them into a more alert state.

    I am writing specifically to inform as many as possible about the benefits of this research. I would love any leads into disseminating the data to more hospitals (NICU’s) and parents so it can be useful to many more people ~ as many as possible. For your information, we created a CD of lullabies featuring males and females singing some of the same lullabies used in the study (with light instrumental accompaniment and lyrics so parents and other caregivers can sing along). The lullabies are designed for all young children up to age 8. They can be purchased here on i-tunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/music-babies-helps-baby-sleep/id403, through certain online stores, or by contacting me. If you or your unit is interested in finding out more about the research or the lullaby recordings, please contact me. I am also interested in donating music to international neonatal organizations where it could be of benefit to struggling countries.

    Thank you so much!
    Sincerely, Jackie Coleman

    jackiec6@mac.com

  8. February 23rd, 2013 at 22:30 | #8

    This was such a wonderful article, and testimony to the power of music education. I have shared it several places, including a link on my blog. I was unable to find part 2, though. Can you help?

  9. February 23rd, 2013 at 23:48 | #9

    Part two will run on Tuesday, the 26th. Sorry for the confusion! Sharon

  10. November 25th, 2013 at 04:56 | #10

    We had a similar experience as the one recounted in this article. Our son arrived 5 and 1/2 weeks early under difficult circumstances. Once born, he had to be rushed to the NICU at a regional hospital. My wife, who is a singer and healing music artist, was not allowed to go with him because of her own issues. Once she was out of danger, I drove to the NICU to be with him.

    It was a long night. He had lost a lot of blood in the delivery(placental abruption). We weren’t sure if he had experienced brain or heart damage. His little hand rested on my pinky finger as I prayed and prayed and prayed and waited.

    As the night passed, his condition improved. His breathing became stronger, his color better, and then he woke up. The NICU is an unfamiliar auditory environment full of beeps and buzzes. He had never heard this cacophony and he started to whimper and cry. I was not allowed to pick him up or hold him so I put on his mother’s CD. As soon as he heard her singing, he calmed down.

    Later that day, my wife joined us. He is completely fine now. A healthy and happy boy in every way.

    My wife told her version of this story at a presentation about the healing power of lullabies and a mother’s singing which you can see here (along with her loon call)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuhS25H8vXM

  1. February 19th, 2013 at 10:01 | #1
  2. July 8th, 2013 at 07:11 | #2