With inspiration renewed after having my childhood piano moved into our home this weekend, I’d like to share a recent post from one of our local birth guru’s, Penny Simkin, as she talks about singing to the fetus and how it impacts families and their newborns.
People have sung to their babies forever. Every culture has lullabies and children’s songs that are passed down through the generations. New ones are written and shared and the custom goes on –a rich part of the fabric of human civilization. These songs are designed to relax babies, calm their fears, or entertain and amuse them throughout childhood. As we have learned more about the life and capabilities of the fetus, we have realized that the fetus can hear clearly for months before birth, and also can discriminate sounds and develop preferences for some sounds over others. Furthermore, at birth, newborns respond to familiar sounds by becoming calm and orienting toward the source of the sound, and even indicate their preferences for familiar voices and words over the unfamiliar.
Newborn babies prefer their parents’ and other familiar voices over those of strangers (1), and they prefer hearing a story that their mother had read frequently in utero rather than an unfamiliar story or the familiar one read by someone other than their mother (2). Fetuses hear, remember, have preferences, respond to, and discriminate among differences — in sounds, music, voices.
These exciting findings have inspired educators to advocate prenatal learning through recordings played through a mother’s abdomen (of languages, music, and other things). They have inspired birth activists and baby advocates to provide a safe enriching environment for the fetus. Advocates of prenatal bonding emphasize communication between parent and unborn child as a powerful way to strengthen the bond.
I’d like to offer my take on this phenomenon and urge everyone who works with expectant parents to tell them about some unique and heart-warming benefits of singing or reciting rhymes to their unborn babies.
I think my interest in parents singing to their babies prenatally began in the 1980s when I first read Michel Odent’s book, “Birth Reborn”(3). Odent is a French physician who has always been ahead of his time. He had a unique and original maternity care program at his hospital in Pithiviers, France. His book had a great influence on my understanding of normal birth, and the book is still worth reading today, along with all his subsequent ones. One lovely aspect of his program is particularly relevant to the topic of this blog post. The program included a weekly singing group at the hospital, attended by pregnant women, their partners, families with young babies, the midwives, and Odent himself. The group was led by an opera singer who believed singing to be important for fetuses, babies and those who care for them. Odent’s account inspired me to invite Jamie Shilling, a folk singer who had recently taken my birth class, to bring her guitar and her baby to my classes a half hour early each week and sing with the expectant parents. That went on very successfully for several class series, then the groups decided to combine and carry on in a monthly sing- along for expectant parents and new families, in a private home –Although the groups eventually disbanded, they provided many parents with opportunities to sing together and connect with their babies and each other in relaxing and peaceful surroundings. A high point during that time was when Michel Odent came to Seattle to give a conference and he agreed to come to one of our sing-alongs. See the photo of Jamie leading the group of expectant and new parents, with Michel Odent and myself participating. He taught us the song, “Little Black Cat” in French.
I couldn’t help but think during those times, how the unborn and new babies must love hearing their parents singing. Seeing the parents caressing the mother’s belly as they sang was heartwarming. That happened in the mid- 1980s, when much research on the capabilities of the unborn and newborn baby was beginning to be published. Recalling those special gatherings, I have always suggested to my students in childbirth class that they sing to their unborn babies, or play their favorite recorded music, with the thought that the baby will remember it and be soothed by it after birth.
But it was one couple, whom I served as a birth doula, who took my suggestion to another level, and showed me much more about the value of singing to the unborn baby. They were having their second child, hoping for a VBAC. When they discovered that they were having a boy, they decided to give their baby the song, “Here Comes the Sun” and sang it to him often during pregnancy. The VBAC was not possible, and as the cesarean was underway, and the baby boy, crying lustily, was raised for the parents to see, the father began belting out the baby’s song. Though the mother didn’t have a strong voice under the circumstances, she also sang. The baby turned his head, turned his face right toward his father and calmed down while his father sang. Time stopped. As I looked around the operating room, I saw tears appear on the surgical masks.
It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and it was that event that taught me the value, not only of singing prenatally, but also, singing the same song every day. Not only does the baby hear his or her parents’ voices, not only does he or she hear music, but the baby also gets to know one song very well. Familiarity adds another feature to this concept, because we know that fetuses have memory and prefer the familiar. Think for a moment about what this might have meant to our cesarean-born baby –suddenly being removed from the warmth, wetness, and dimness of the womb with its mother’s reassuring heartbeat, into the cold bright noisy operating room. The baby’s transition to extrauterine life is hectic and full of new sensations. He cries reflexively, but perhaps also out of shock and discomfort. Then he hears something familiar – voices and music and the sounds of words that he has heard many times before – something he likes. He calms down, and seeks the source of this familiar song. Everyone present is moved by this gift to the baby from his parents.
I’ve become passionate about this idea as a way to enhance bonding between parents and babies, but also as a unique and very practical measure for soothing a fussing baby or a sick baby who can’t be held or breastfed. Please join me on Thursday, for Part Two on this topic when I will continue the discussion including research evidence that supports this concept: practical suggetions for childbirth professionals to share with expectant parents; and some very endearing film clips of families singing to their babies.
1. Brazelton B. Cramer B. (1991)The Earliest Relationship: Parents, Infants, and The Drama Of Early Attachment . Da Capo Press Cambridge, MA.
2. De Casper A. 1974, as described in Klaus M, Klaus P, Kennell J. 2000. Your Amazing Newborn. Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA.
3. Odent M. 1984, Birth Reborn. Pantheon Books: New York