Local school teacher Dr Marie van Gend has been teaching science and music to the community for over two decades. It was her passion for Choir that led her to pursue a PhD in Music at the University of Newcastle and whilst completing her thesis; sideline research led her down the path of Lullabies. Born then was Lullaby: The First Steps. Marie’s goal is to help reconnect with this slowly disappearing tradition by helping us understand the benefits for parents and their babies.
Hi Marie. Last month you created Lullaby, The First Steps. Can you explain the main motivation behind this?
About 18 months ago a young relation, who had just had twins, came to visit me. She commented that she was looking forward to me singing to her babies, so I asked what she sang already. Her response was, “Oh, I don’t sing!” The babies were exposed to plenty of other music played through the phone, but not a parent singing voice. I have been teaching choirs for over twenty years, so this response got me thinking. Was singing to babies important, and if so, had there been a change in our society, so that that was happening less?
I was in the middle of writing up my PhD thesis at the time, so was in research mode, and as a bit of a sideline, started reading up about lullabies. It was a revelation. I had no idea until then how important they were, and what an impact they had on parent/child bonding, emotional state and even language development. I asked around friends and family who were midwives and community nurses, and sure enough, the trend away from singing to babies was a real one.
You have created a podcast to help people sing lullabies. What is that about?
The podcast is called Lullaby: The First Steps and it is available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and is also linked to my website https://www.lullabythefirststeps.com
A new episode drops each fortnight, and I take the listener gently through the steps of learning a new lullaby. I start with the latest thing I’ve found out about why lullabies are important and then we get on to the business of singing together. It’s like we are sitting in the lounge over a cup of tea while having a chat and a sing, really. It helps people get over their fear of singing, gives them ideas about what to sing and also adds to their understanding of why it’s good for them and their baby.
Funnily enough, the podcast seems to have gone well beyond people singing to their babies, and people tell me they are using it to just learn to sing. Some of my past students even listen to it to go to sleep, and one person plays it to their dog to calm it down! I have had gorgeous videos and recordings of people singing what they have learned, and it is such a joyful thing to hear.
For anyone who may be uncertain, please explain what a lullaby is.
A lullaby is any song that is sung in a gentle way for the purpose of soothing a baby. It could be a Bon Jovi ballad, a theme from a commercial or a classical lullaby you remember from your childhood. The song is less important than the way it is sung (and its intention). Usually, these are quite simple melodies with lots of repetition.
Why do you believe that this tradition has been slowly disappearing?
I think there are four reasons. Firstly, we live in a society where fewer people sing in their family setting as they grow up, so singing is not something that is seen as normal. It is done in a formal setting like a choir, or if you are really good, then you are called a “singer” (and that is now a competitive sport). People can be self-conscious, feel judged and awkward and not good enough.
Secondly, with the lessening involvement of other generations in parenting, people have lost touch with their “kin” songs (the songs that the family has traditionally sung to babies) and they may not know where to start.
Thirdly, people don’t realise that their voice is the most important thing for their babies, and think they can replace that just as well with a recording. It is not the same thing.
The fourth reason is time. We live in a world where we are constantly having to be busy and achieve things. Singing to a baby takes time, and people can feel that it saves time to leave them with a recording, so they can get on and do something more productive.
Research tells us a lot about the effects of talking to our babies. Can you share some of the benefits of singing lullabies?
When babies are born, their main sense is auditory (hearing). The world they are born into is a single massive noise, and they use the one familiar sound (their mother’s voice) to start to make sense of that noise. They have a greater response to their mother’s singing voice than her spoken voice, and there have been many studies that have shown that singing to a baby enhances the bond between baby and parent, settles both the parent’s and baby’s emotional states and communicates information.
Controlled studies have found that regular lullaby singing results in better quality sleep and shorter crying phases. There is also a strong link between singing to babies and their development of language skills. Mothers suffering from postnatal depression have been found to experience positive changes in mood after singing to their babies.
It is also something that is being more and more encouraged in neonatal intensive care units, as it has positive impacts on both the parents and baby and has even been found to help the baby cope with some of the uncomfortable procedures they have to go through. The most important factor is it is a familiar voice that is singing, not a recording.
The other really cool thing is that older kids in the family also show a really positive response to hearing a parent singing to their baby brother or sister. It represents calm, security and routine – and you may find that they will start singing lullabies themselves (and that has the added benefit of your children seeing singing as a normal part of life).
Do you have any advice for new parents, grandparents or carers on singing lullabies?
Start before your baby is born! They can hear you after they are four months in utero, and that is where they learn to recognise your voice. It’s a good time for the dads or partners to also sing to the inside-baby, as that means there are two (or more) familiar voices when they come into the world. Just start it and find your way. Start with humming and then test yourself with a bit of a song. It doesn’t matter if you sing in tune or what words you use – your baby won’t know! They are just delighted to hear you making a noise.
You’ll find as you get more confident that your body starts responding as you sing and you get a bit of rocking happening – and then you will feel that incredible connection which is uniquely associated with singing to your baby. Grandparents, midwives, care-givers – the more, the merrier!
Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations within our local region and beyond?
Since I launched the podcast at the end of August, there have been a whole lot of exciting opportunities for collaboration and research. I am currently in discussion with the University of Newcastle to develop a research project, and I have connected with a group who are working towards establishing a Lullaby Project in maternity wards across the country. There has been a lot of media interest, and the podcast is going really well, with some wonderful feedback, so it seems to be filling a need.
For anyone who would like to get in contact with you, please share the best way to do so …
To access the podcast, go to https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/lullaby-the-first-steps-podcast/id1477003536 or https://open.spotify.com/show/52fJ6KUXdyENBj36TbAxb9. Please subscribe if you enjoy it, as it really helps us get it out there.