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Rock the Cradle

baby lullabies

There's something instinctual about lulling your baby to sleep by singing her a soft melody -- and those sweet tunes don't go unnoticed. In fact, research has shown that newborns can even remember music played for them during the third trimester. But don't fret if you didn't pipe in Mozart concertos via belly headphones; there's little evidence that doing this offers any long-term brain-boosting benefits -- despite the buzz a few years ago that exposing babies to classical music makes them smarter. However, listening to, moving to, and making music are important parts of your baby's development in her first year. We'll tell you how to help her feel the beat.

Long before he can clap along or dance, your baby learns about music by moving in time to it in your arms. In a study published in Science, researchers played a rhythm while bouncing one group of babies on every second beat (like a march) and the other group on every third beat (like a waltz). When given a preference test based on a head-turn response, the babies indicated that they liked listening to the rhythm with accents that matched the way they had been bounced.

"Combining music and movement wires a baby's brain to integrate the senses," says study author Laurel Trainor, Ph.D., director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario. "It helps your child learn to connect perception and action, which is an important skill that will serve him well throughout his life." Infants begin to understand that what they see and hear are connected to what they do, from crying to get your attention to learning to shake a rattle.

Help Your Baby Benefit

You don't need to host hourly variety shows for your infant. Placing your iPod in a docking station and holding him as you sway to the beat, bouncing him on your knee to your college fight song at game time, or rocking him while you sing to him at bedtime will all encourage him to connect music with movement.

While simply listening to melodies won't turn your baby into the next Alicia Keys, actively making music together might give your little one a head start. In other research by Dr. Trainor, moms joined one of two different music programs with their 6-month-old baby. One group banged drums, played xylophones, and moved to music (with Mom's encouragement), but the other only heard music in the background while they played with blocks and puzzles. "The babies in the active music lessons showed earlier and larger brain responses to sound and greater knowledge of musical scale structure," says Dr. Trainor, who measured the babies' reactions via electrodes that detect brain activity. When given a head-turn preference test, the babies responded to music that sounded similar to what they'd played along to in class, while babies in the passive music class showed no such preference.

Help your baby benefit

Playing some tracks in the background is great, but getting your baby involved in producing sounds is even better. Shaking a rattle to the beat, playing pat-a-cake, or letting her bang on a pot with a wooden spoon are all good ways to merge listening and making music.

There's no reason to stick with only kiddie standards. In fact, your baby might be better at recognizing complex rhythms than you are. For example, the music of certain cultures such as India, Turkey, and Bulgaria contains irregular patterns not heard in Western music. Researchers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, discovered that adults have a tough time detecting skipped beats in such complex tunes but that infants from 6 months to 1 year old could easily pick them out.

The fact that babies can track complex rhythms during this six-month window shows that they learn to narrow their focus as they mature, according to study author Erin Hannon, Ph.D., a child psychologist. "This is consistent with other findings in studies of language and face recognition," she says. "We're born with so much potential, but it's not actually useful to pay attention to every single sound we hear. If we did, we'd be completely overwhelmed."

Help your baby benefit

Take advantage of your baby's superior listening skills and get him grooving early on to genres you love, whether they're classics from your family's ethnic background or top playlists from your iTunes library.

There are tons of great tunes out there for your baby and you to enjoy -- and now they're easier than ever to find.

  • Rock on: Stream your favorite rock songs remixed as lullabies for free at rockabyebabymusic.com.
  • Chill out: Download the free Ambiance Lite iPhone app for soothing songs and ambient sounds.
  • Take your pick: Enter any artist or song at slacker.com to create and save custom stations of music.
  • Get personal: Record your voice singing your favorite baby songs with the iRockabye iPhone app $1; iTunes

Want out-of-the-ordinary lullabies to sing to your baby? Go to parents.com/lullabies for fun twists on some classic tunes.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Parents magazine.