Why Lullabies Help Babies (and us!) to Fall Asleep

An image of Danielle Mowbray
14 Jul 20173 min read

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably spent a good chunk of your time attempting to soothe a tired baby with a lullaby. But have you ever thought about the science or history behind them? There’s good evidence to show that lullabies don’t just help us sleep, they can actually make us feel better too, so it’s no wonder they’ve stayed popular for centuries!

A universal language

Persuading babies to sleep isn’t always an easy job and when a baby cries, it’s a mother’s instinct to try and soothe them with their voice. It’s easy to see how lullabies came about, but common traits shared across cultures can still be surprising.

Picture of a baby asleep on a bed covered in a yellow blanket.

The oldest evidence of lullaby use comes in the form of an etched clay tablet thought to be from around 2,000BC. While the subject of the song in question – which warns baby of an approaching demon – isn’t particularly soothing, the voice of a parent is familiar from the womb. There are other similarities to a baby’s time before birth too. Lullabies are often in 6/8 musical time, often used in swing music. The gentle, swaying beat behind a lullaby may remind your baby of the rocking motions they became accustomed to while in the womb.

Soothing sound associations

When we sing a lullaby as an adult, the rhythm can regulate our breathing, which makes us listen to our baby’s breathing and help calm us too. It may also be helpful in encouraging sleep through an associative response. Whether you sing a particular song to your child or use a monitor that plays white noise to your baby at bedtime, you will know that it’s possible to build an association between noise and sleep. This is something that can work well for adults too. So, if you’re struggling to get to sleep at the moment could it be time to revive some childhood lullabies?

A healing voice

Picture of a young child kissing his baby brother.

The repetitive rhythm of a lullaby gives it a certain hypnotic quality and that’s something that has encouraged several groups of scientists to try and harness potential healing powers. In one study from 2010, premature infants staying in an intensive care unit were monitored while recorded lullabies were played. The results showed that listening to lullabies improved oxygen levels and respiration.

A few years later in 2013 the experiment was repeated using live music and even greater benefits were found. Improved respiratory function, better sleeping patterns and reduced heart rate associated with lower stress levels were also recorded. What’s more, the lullabies seemed to lower stress felt by parents too.

In the same year, Great Ormond Street tested the impact of lullabies during medical procedures and found they reduced pain and stress levels. This pain-dulling power could be due to endorphin release encouraged through listening to lullabies, which will surely come as music to the ears of any parent who is trying to soothe a teething baby using their best singing voice.