All babies are born with the potential to become musical, and they often react to songs with enthusiasm. "Infants' hearing is well developed soon after birth, so they can respond to music very early on," explains Diane Bales, Ph.D., associate professor of human development and family science at the University of Georgia, in Athens. Encouraging your baby's natural fascination with it can strengthen your relationship with her, boost her language skills, and open the door to all sorts of exploration and fun.
Your child's brain is prewired to learn music, just as it's prewired to learn language, says Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., author of This Is Your Brain on Music. In the same way that babies go through a period of babbling before they learn to speak, they also babble musically. "Your baby may make up little songs and train himself to hear and create various musical ideas," says Dr. Levitin. Singing to him, or patting his back or rocking to music, can help strengthen the musical pathways in his brain.
Playing with your baby along with music is an easy way to strengthen your relationship, says Laurel Trainor, Ph.D., director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, in Hamilton, Ontario. Research suggests that moving to music with someone triggers the release of oxytocin -- the "bonding" hormone also produced during nursing.
You might assume it's best to choose classical music or lullabies, but almost all music is baby-friendly. "If you play music that you enjoy, you'll have more fun listening and singing along with your baby," says Dr. Trainor. Plus, her studies have found that babies who move rhythmically to music smile more, are easier to soothe, and are more willing to explore their environment than babies who simply listen.
When music is part of your routine, your little one may also speak up sooner. Studies have found that babies who engage in making music (with simple instruments like drums and shakers) and moving to music (even if parents have to help them wiggle) use more communicative gestures, such as pretending a banana is a telephone or hugging a doll to show affection around 12 months, than those who listen passively to music. "The more expressive gestures she uses, the more likely she is to acquire language skills," says Dr. Trainor. Songs also introduce your baby to new words and rhymes, and Dr. Bales's research found that setting words to music helps the brain learn them more quickly. Other research has linked rhythmicity (the ability to tap a beat) with increased reading ability in older kids.
There are lots of ways that you can sing and move with your baby. You might hum a familiar song like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and leave off the last note in a line, encouraging your baby to chime in with a coo or a grunt. John Feierabend, Ph.D., director of music education at the Hartt School of the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, suggests tapping along to the music's rhythm on the soles of your baby's feet or clapping his hands along with a song. "This helps him realize the connection between what he hears and what he feels," says Dr. Feierabend, "which enforces his musical awareness in a playful way."
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Parents magazine.