The Benefits of Music on Newborns

In our first post in the “Benefits of Music” series, we focused on the benefits of music on babies still in the womb. In that article, we pointed to research that shows that exposure to music in the womb can enhance auditory processing, spatial learning, and even set the stage for language acquisition. And these benefits just keep on coming as your baby grows and moves outside the womb in the wide world of infanthood.

The most impressive area of development that music can affect is speech. Language is all about patterns—patterns of letters, patterns of sounds, patterns of words. While it’s so ingrained in you that you likely don’t even notice anymore, when you are listening to someone else speak, you are listening for patterns and differences in syllables. Learning how to detect patterns, therefore, is a key component in language development and acquisition. For newborns and infants, their senses are flooded with input; every experience is new to them. Creating order amidst this chaos is crucial, and music can help do just that, allowing their brains to take all this sensory input and translate it into complex neural associations. A 2016 study conducted by scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Labs corroborates this, suggesting that experiencing rhythmic patterns in music is correlated with recognizing rhythmic patterns in speech. Patricia Kuhl, co-author of the study, told UW News that “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.”

Beyond language development, music can affect your baby in some pretty surprising ways. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that babies who were not only exposed to music, but who were also moved in sync to that music were more likely to engage in helpful and social activity directly after: the study showed that 14-month-old babies who were bounded in rhythm to “Twist and Shout” were more likely to help their “bounder” pick up objects the bouncer had dropped than those babies who didn’t listen—or bound—to any music. It’s an odd connection—music bopping and helpfulness—but it actually makes a lot of sense: moving together, in time to a beat, creates a strong connection. Anybody who’s slow-dances with a partner knows this. And when you feel connected to someone, even if you’re a baby, you want to help that person when they are in need.

One benefit of music that’s no surprise at all, and that consistently shows up—from babies in the womb, to infants, to big kids, and even to moms—is stress-reduction and mood-improvement. Music has proven, time and again, to ease our anxieties, lower our cortisol levels and brighten our outlooks on life. One of the University of Toronto researchers conducted a different study in which babies and mothers were put in sound-proof rooms and mom would sing lullabies to her baby. They were not allowed to touch, however, because the researchers wanted to see what the music did “without tactile input.” Through observing sweat gland behavior via stickers on the bottom of the babies’ feet and the tips of the moms’ fingers, the study showed that, even without the rocking and cuddling that usually come with lullaby-singing, singing soothing songs decreases stress in mom and baby.

And since music is closely associated with memory, providing these positive experiences around music for your baby—whether that be through singing soothing lullabies, or bounding with them to fun, upbeat songs—allows them to revisit that experience every time you sing or play that song again. You are strengthening those good neural associations in those rapidly growing, rapidly processing, curious, delightful, and very, very new little brains.