infant girl dancing

Playing music to your baby and child

Music is the universal human language. Anyone who has ever seen a baby dance, bopping about, excitedly bouncing up and down with a low-hanging nappy, will know this to be true.

Music is great for our souls and spirits, but it is also good for the development of our brains. And, it can also serve more practical purposes by providing a distraction, an opportunity for dance, a sing-along, or even as a useful aid to sleep.

Music and your baby’s development

Music can have a profound impact on a person’s emotional, mental and physical development, starting right from early infancy, a time when it helps to activate the neural pathways and sow the seeds for healthy development.

Studies have shown that even newborn babies have an innate ability to pick out musical beats and that by the time they are nine months old they can begin to distinguish between different timings(1). And the more that your baby is exposed to music, the more they will begin to recognise and decode it and to develop an understanding of its structure and patterns.

Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that babies are able to pick up emotional cues in music and that this might help them to develop an understanding of the emotional states of both themselves and others. This ability has been observed in children as young as 20 months old, with one study finding that infants are able to discern “emotional incongruence between musical and facial expressions” and that this may help to prepare them for later “social-communicative development”.(2)

Longstanding claims of links between exposure to music and enhanced development of speech and cognitive skills are also increasingly supported by evidence.(3) The author of one study, by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences explains, says “infants experience a complex world in which sounds, lights and sensations vary constantly. The baby’s job is to recognize the patterns of activity and predict what’s going to happen next. Pattern perception is an important cognitive skill, and improving that ability early may have long-lasting effects on learning.”

What type of music is right for your baby?

You have probably heard claims that playing classical music to babies will make them smarter. However, these “Mozart effect” claims relate to a single 1993 study and, unfortunately, do not stand up to scrutiny today. In fact, the paper in question has been reviewed on multiple occasions and the most that researchers can claim is that baby’s who are played classical music score half an IQ point higher than those who are not.(4)

However, if you like classical music, there is every reason to play it to your baby. It will provide stimulation; it will help develop an appreciation of the form, and it may help to soothe your baby to sleep or to provide a calm environment or useful distraction – that said, the same thing can be said for many other types of music.

So, there is absolutely no need to be choosy about your baby’s playlist. Play them whatever you feel like and whatever they seem to enjoy. Chances are that if you play them lots of folk music, they will come to enjoy folk music; if you play them lots of jazz, they will enjoy jazz. So, it is a good idea to expose your baby to a broad range of music as in all likelihood this will broaden their appreciation of different sounds, patterns and rhythms.

There are no rules as to what music you should play; it really is as simple as play something soothing to help your baby sleep or calm down, play something with recognisable words if you want to help with language or play something upbeat to get your baby excited or in the mood for dancing, which, by the way, will help them to develop balance and motor skills.

What is the right volume for playing music to your baby?

It is important to note that babies and children have narrower ear canals and more sensitive hearing than adults. If you play music at too high a volume it has the potential to cause permanent damage – if you can’t comfortably talk over the music, it is too loud. Generally speaking, noises and sounds softer than 80 dB should not damage your baby’s hearing unless they last for several hours. If you take your baby to a concert or similarly loud event, you should protect the ears with some well-fitted baby ear defenders.

1. 8. Winkler I et al. Newborn infants detect the beat in music. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2009;106(7):2468-71.