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How to use music to promote your infants development

January 03, 2017

In our previous post, we talked about how some unpleasant sounds in your baby’s everyday surroundings can cause stress and negatively affect your baby. When sound is used appropriately, though, it can also promote healthy growth and development. One of the ways we can use sound to do just that is through music. 

An infants’ brain is rapidly developing. It is important to expose infants to different types of sensory input, so that their sensory neurons (cells in the brain) are exposed to new information and can begin to strengthen and develop. Music is a unique stimulus because it can provide several different types of sensory input. In addition, music is a great tool to help an infant calm and regulate when they are showing signs of stress.

There are essentially two ways to use music with your infant:

1. provide recorded music, and

2. provide live music (e.g. singing).

Both ways of providing music have their benefits, and come with guidelines to optimize their effectiveness.      

What to know when providing recorded music for your baby

When considering recorded music to help calm an infant, it is important to follow a few guidelines. In general, music with few changes in dynamics (loudness throughout the song) and simple melodies, structure, and harmonies is best for infants. For example, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star demonstrates a slow, simple, lullaby-style song which works great for infants.

Traditional classical music (yes, even Mozart), and music from the radio tend to contain many complex elements of music which can be overstimulating and overwhelming for infants, especially those who are premature and/or have medical complications.

Full-term infants with no medical complications are generally capable of tolerating more complex music. Regardless, it is a good idea to screen music for complexity before using, as some music may be defined as lullaby-style but have excessive instrumentation and melodic contour, syncopated rhythms, and/or sudden changes in dynamics. If you are unsure about what music to use, it is always a good idea to consult with a music therapist if available at your health care facility.

When providing recorded music, consider only providing music in 20 to 30-minute increments. Also, it is safe to keep the total duration of music playing to less than 1.5 hours per day. As long as these duration guidelines are met, it is generally safe to provide recorded music at about 60 decibels (Db). See the previous blog post for an explanation of appropriate decibel levels for infants.

An infants’ brain is rapidly developing. It is important to expose infants to different types of sensory input, so that their sensory neurons (cells in the brain) are exposed to new information and can begin to strengthen and develop.

Any music less than 45 dB may not be distinguishable as music to an infant (because it is too soft to hear all the components of music), so the soothing effects of the music may be lost. As a final consideration, when using music with premature and/or medically complex infants, be aware that the above guidelines may change. In fact, music may not be helpful in some situations. This is why it is important to consult with your music therapist when possible.    

What to know when providing live music for your baby

Providing live music for your infant has special benefits apart from soothing. There is good evidence that singing to an infant can increase prosocial interactions and help infants achieve certain developmental markers. Music can provide infants with the stimulation they require for healthy brain development. In addition, holding your infant and singing is a great way to bond with your infant, and help them relax if needed.

Again, it is important to keep in mind the way you provide music- sing slow, simple melodies and sing at an appropriate decibel level. The familiar sound of a caregiver’s voice can be calming for an infant, so don’t stress if you feel like your singing ability isn’t the best. Even just talking to your infant at an appropriate loudness can enhance their developmental well-being. However, sung music tends to be more engaging and pleasing than speaking. This is part of the reason why music is especially effective at soothing infants, promoting bonding, and cueing social behaviors like visual gaze and vocalizations.        

There are many commercial products that are geared towards providing infants with music and adapting the sounds in their environment. Mobiles and lullaby-playing devices may be attractive products, but you should be diligent about how these devices play music. Consider loudness, duration, and style of music before using such products.

Also, pay close attention to other products that try to target environmental noise for infants. For example, many sleep machines for infants have shown to be detrimental to infant development, sometimes causing hearing loss. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends caution when using infant sleep machines, making sure the volume (loudness) is low, the sleep machine is outside the crib and as far away as possible from the infant, and only operated for a short duration of time.

In the end, carefully monitoring the soundscape for your infant is very important and using music (as recommended) to supplement this soundscape offers several positive outcomes. Remember, not all sound is good sound, but some sound can be great for an infant when implemented properly.