Among adults, research shows that music can markedly improve the quality of sleep. A study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing shows that adults who listened to 45 minutes of music before going to sleep reported having better sleep quality beginning on the very first night. The benefit even appears to have a cumulative effect, with participants in the study reporting better sleep the more they incorporated music into their nightly routine.
Similarly, parents have always used music like lullabies to lull their babies to sleep. Lullabies have been found to soothe babies to sleep, foster an emotional closeness between the baby and the parent, and form an association between music, comfort, and security.
Yet according to some doctors, leaving babies to drift off using the wrong music or even using music in the wrong way can end up working against the parents.
Using the right music to help babies sleep
Not all lullaby music is ideal for babies at bedtime. Some lullabies have upbeat melodies and rhythms that are more suited for daytime use, such as car rides or playtime. Parents should be careful and choose music with an ambient background that doesn’t overstimulate the baby’s brain.
Using classical music is a good baby calming technique. This is because classical music contains no lyrics that are distracting or overwhelming for the baby’s brain. Additionally, a lot of classical music uses gentle, soothing tones and avoids heavy percussion instruments.
Music recommended by general practitioner Dr. Rob Hicks to help babies sleep can be found in a playlist curated by Classic FM here. The playlist contains songs such as “Piano Sonata No. 14” and “Beethoven’s Romance No. 2” by Ludwig Van Beethoven, “Piano Concerto No.2” by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, and “Wiegenlied Opus 49 No. 4” by Johannes Brahms. All of these pieces carry a slower tempo to slow things down for a baby and help them rest.
Aside from the playlist curated by Dr. Hicks and Classic FM above, there are several popular Spotify playlists made to help babies sleep. These playlists compile hours of classical music especially suited to be enjoyable for both baby and the parent:
Using music the right way
Music is a useful tool for helping babies and young children be aware of the time of day and create a routine. In the daytime, playing upbeat music encourages babies to move around and develop their motor skills. At night, playing slow and soothing music signals to the baby that the day has ended.
Yet licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg cautions parents against depending on music. “Music, if used every night, will become a ‘sleep onset association’ for the baby, and then the baby comes to depend on this music for the transition into sleep,” Dr. Schneeberg explained. “Then, no matter where the baby sleeps – at his or her grandmother’s, at daycare, at a hotel and so on – he or she may need it there, too, so it has to be available all the time.”
According to Dr. Schneeberg, the key is to end the music just before a baby sleeps, rather than continually allowing it to play. Babies should also be taught to sleep under varying conditions, such as sleeping with no music some nights or even moving them to a different room. Doing so reduces the odds of babies developing sleep crutches, or any stimuli/condition that babies cannot replicate themselves.
Parents should also consider white noise as an alternative for music. A study conducted by researchers from the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital found that 80% of babies between 2 and 7 days old fell asleep within five minutes in response to white noise. White noise works to silence any background noise that may disturb a baby’s sleep, like a nearby older sibling or television. If a baby is accustomed to an environment filled with noise, however, using a white noise may have the opposite effect as babies will find it too quiet to sleep.
To sum up, the following are our expert recommendations when it comes to music and getting babies to sleep:
- Only play soothing music that doesn’t overstimulate the baby’s brain. Classical music is always a safe choice for this.
- Using calming music is a great way to help baby’s sleep but make sure it doesn’t become a crutch. Always cut the music right before the baby sleeps and try going some nights with no music at all.
- Consider alternatives to music, such as white noise.
Music and your baby’s development
A study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences shows that playing music improved a 9-month old baby’s processing of both new music and speech sounds.
The study’s findings suggest that music’s rhythmic pattern can help babies detect the rhythmic patterns in speech, improving a baby’s cognitive skills and possibly having long-lasting effects on their learning abilities.
Like music, speech has strong rhythmic patterns where the syllables help listeners distinguish one sound from another and understand what someone else is saying. The ability to identify differences in speech sounds is what helps babies learn how to speak.
Additionally, music was found to help even the physical health of some babies. In a study conducted among babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (ICU) of one hospital, playing classical music and singing lullabies were both found to be effective in helping babies maintain body temperature, increase oxygen saturation values, and reduce stress. The results were found when comparing two groups of babies in the neonatal (ICU), one that was exposed to music vs. one that wasn’t.
In brief, our experts recommend using music to help develop the following areas for a baby:
- The rhythmic patterns in music are similar to the rhythmic patterns they hear when people speak, improving a baby’s cognitive skills. Play music before they sleep and your baby might just learn how to speak faster.
- Physical health. Music has been shown to soothe babies and help them deal with external stress, especially among babies in the neonatal ICU.
To conclude, using music sleep is an efficient and accessible way of getting babies to sleep but it has to be done properly. Parents should take care to use music that doesn’t overstimulate the baby’s brain and is calm enough to soothe them, while also making sure that it doesn’t become a crutch for when the baby has to sleep. Used properly, music will result in a baby whose brain development is accelerated, is better rested, and is healthier overall.
- Lai, H. L., & Good, M. (2005). Music improves sleep quality in older adults. Journal of advanced nursing, 49(3), 234–244. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2004.03281.x
- Brooks, W. (2016). Putting lullabies to bed: The effects of screened presentations on lullaby practices. Australian Journal of Music Education, 50(2), 83-97.
- Utley, M. (2018, August 31). How to Choose The Best Music to Put Baby to Sleep. Fatherly. https://www.fatherly.com/parenting/the-best-music-to-put-baby-to-sleep/
- Music for babies: advice from Dr. Rob Hicks. (n.d.). Classic FM. https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/mood/baby/music-babies
- Lerner, C., & Parlakian, R. (2016, August 11). Beyond Twinkle, Twinkle: Using Music with Infants and Toddlers. Zero to Three. https://www.educationalplaycare.com/blog/benefits-of-music-and-movement/
- Spencer, J. A., Moran, D. J., Lee, A., & Talbert, D. (1990). White noise and sleep induction. Archives of disease in childhood, 65(1), 135–137. https://doi.org/10.1136/adc.65.1.135
- Zhao, Tian & Kuhl, Patricia. (2016). Musical intervention enhances infants’ neural processing of temporal structure in music and speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113. 5212-5217. 10.1073/pnas.1603984113.
- Alay, B., & Esenay, F. I. (2019). The clinical effect of classical music and lullaby on term babies in neonatal intensive care unit: A randomised controlled trial. JPMA. The Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association, 69(4), 459–463.