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Sleep Tips

Lullabies: A Timeless Sleep Aid for Children

Lullabies have been used by parents to soothe fussy children for hundreds of years. Many parents find themselves humming the familiar tunes that soothed them when they were young, as they rock their own babies to sleep. Last night, as I sang to my wakeful 1-year-old a song my mother used to sing to me (replacing the name in the song with “Remy,” my daughter’s name), I thought about the way lullabies transcend culture and language around the world. We all have lullabies in one form or another. Timeless and universal, lullabies have been used for baby sleep training by parents from various backgrounds and traditions for centuries. What’s fascinating to me about lullabies is that no matter their origin, they all share the same soothing cadences and tones. Lullabies are a language in and of themselves; a language shared and experienced by parents and their babies from the earliest moments of life into adulthood as the tradition is passed from one generation to the next.

Even as more modern renditions crop up (like Good Night , by my husband’s favorite band, The Beatles), some lyrics have withstood the test of time. Many of these lullabies continue to be a household tool for sleep training. You are probably familiar with Johannes Brahms’ lullaby, a tune you hear infused in almost every musical toy and baby gadget on the market. It was written by Brahms in 1868 for his friend (and crush) Bertha Faber to celebrate the birth of her second child. The melody is based on a song Faber used to sing to him, and the verses are derived from German folk poems. Bertha was the first person to sing the lullaby, and centuries later, it continues to be a bedtime ritual.

Another popular melody, “Rock-a-bye Baby,” has a more sinister origin (as many lullabies ironically do). It is rumored to be the first lullaby that was written in North America, first appearing in Mother Goose’s Melody in 1765. There are several myths surrounding the inspiration behind this ubiquitous tune. One theory is that an English immigrant wrote it after observing the Native Americans’ technique of creating baby mattresses from birch-bark and suspending them from tree branches. Another suggestion – perhaps a little less credible – is that it was inspired by an English family who lived in a tree house constructed from an ancient yew tree. Whatever the inspiration for “Rock-a-bye Baby,” the lyrics, which refer to a cradle falling from a broken tree limb, sharply clash with the soothing intonations of the melody.

A popular myth surrounding another classical lullaby tune, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” suggests that it was originally composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at a very young age. In reality, the music of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” came from a French children’s folk melody called “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” which made its debut in 1761 in a book of music called Les Amusements d’une Heure et Demy. Mozart came into the picture two decades later when he composed a set of theme and variations for the piano based on the original melody.

Regardless of their origin, across cultures and time periods, lullabies share certain traits. For instance, the common triple meter rhythm is designed to mimic the movement a baby feels within its mother’s womb. The soft, crooning notes are reminiscent of the sounds a mother instinctually makes when she communicates with her baby and the sounds her baby makes in response. In this way, lullabies remain an integral component of a baby’s first lessons in communication. Parents are encouraged to sing to their babies to encourage the formation of important neural connections early, offering a foundation for more advanced language skills later in life as the infant’s brain develops. More profoundly, though, singing a lullaby to one’s baby helps parents express love and tenderness to their little one to help form that special bond between parent and child.

What is your favorite lullaby? Do you change the words? What’s the best bedtime playlist you’ve found? Share with me in the comments!

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