Mom's singing voice most effective to calm babies, ‘baby talk’ causes more distress: Study

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Crying baby contest
An amateur sumo wrestler holds a baby during a baby crying contest at Sensoji temple in Tokyo May 30, 2015. In the contest two wrestlers each hold a baby while a referee makes faces and loud noises to make them cry. The baby who cries the loudest wins. The ritual is believed to aid the healthy growth of the children and ward off evil spirits. One hundred and twenty children took part in the event, the organiser said. Reuters/Thomas Peter

Parents could now try an effective way to calm their babies from a tantrum using the discovery of a new study that shows infants tend to relax when listening to their mothers' singing even without physical interactions. Researchers also found that the normal way of speech or “baby talk” tend to make infants distressed quickly.

Researchers from the University of Montreal said that the study focused on the effect of singing and speech to the emotional self-control of babies. While infants do not have a fully developed emotional self-control, the researchers found that singing potentially promotes its development in children.

The study, published in the journal Infancy, shows that babies can be get carried away by the music, which indicates that emotional self-control could be "entrained," according to Professor Isabelle Peretz of the University of Montreal Centre for Research on Brain, Music and Language.

For the study, 30 healthy infants aged six to nine months were exposed to both baby talk and adult-directed speech, followed by listening to music that was produced in Turkish. 

"The performer sang Turkish play songs, not Western ones. This is an important point as studies have shown that the songs we sing to infants have a specific range of tones and rhythms," said study author Mariève Corbeil in a statement. Corbeil is from the University of Montreal.

During the tests, the parents stayed behind the babies at the same room for their facial expressions not to influence the reaction of the infants. The researchers used recordings to ensure comparable performances for all children.

The recordings were played several times until the infants displayed the "cry face" from being calm. Cry face is described as the most common facial expression of distress in every infant, the researchers said.

The researchers found that the Turkish song effectively made the babies calm for an average time of nine minutes while baby talk had also influenced their reactions by just four minutes. The adult-directed speech worked the least by less than four minutes.

The researchers performed another test to verify the findings by replacing the Turkish song with the recordings of mothers singing with the familiar language to the babies. The song delivered the same effect.

"Even in the relatively sterile environment of the testing room-black walls, dim illumination, no toys, and no human visual or tactile stimulation--the sound of a woman singing prolonged infants' positive or neutral states and inhibited distress," Peretz said.

Peretz said that the findings could help parents who are experiencing adverse socio-economic or emotional circumstances. Although parents commonly use comforting interventions for distressed babies, those who are in unfavourable situations tend to respond with frustration and anger that can negatively affect infants. Singing could be helpful for both parents and the baby.

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