Researchers at the University of Montreal conducted an experiment which involved 39 healthy infants, aged between 6 and 9 months.
The purpose was to investigate how the participants’ emotional self-control would be influenced when being exposed to music or speech.
Prior studies had only analyzed the impact of these stimuli on attention, but researchers now sought to see if behaviors could be regulated using specific sounds. The findings were presented in a report called “Singing Delays the Onset of Infant Distress”.
Researchers ensured the objectivity of the study by not employing any auditory cues which could have been recognized by the children. For instance, they didn’t use the baby’s mother’s voice, which is instantly identified, and provokes specific reactions and associations.
Instead, the speeches and music which the participants had to listen to were actually in Turkish, so that the language and the actual rhythms could be unrecognizable.
Moreover, upon listening to fragments of “baby talk”, melodies and adult-directed conversations, the infants didn’t have other stimuli to confuse them or capture their attention.
The laboratory room was entirely sterile, with no toys, low illumination, and lack of visual or tactile input. Also, recordings were played with these sounds, instead of bringing live performers, whose gestures and facial expressions could’ve had further impact.
Moreover, while parents were present in the same room as the subjects, they sat behind them, in order not to influence the children’s reactions in any way.
During the trial, the audio recordings were played until the babies began to show signs of distress, which included raised cheeks, stretched and lowered lip corners, droopy eyebrows and open mouth.
It was determined that babies spent twice as much time looking soothed and relaxed when listening to a melody they had never heard before, than when listening to human speech.
More precisely, when listening to baby talk, they appeared calm for a little over four minutes, whereas adult-oriented discussions kept them soothed for a bit less than four minutes. It was actually quite surprising for scientists to discover such insignificant differences between the two types of speech.
On the other hand, while they were exposed to music, they were peaceful and serene for approximately 9 minutes.
Researchers then conducted another experiment by replacing Turkish music with melodies sung by the babies’ mothers in their language (French). The initial findings were replicated: children were calm and composed for approximately 6 minutes while hearing the play song, visibly longer than during regular speech.
“Emotional self-control is obviously not developed in infants, and we believe singing helps babies and children develop this capacity”, declared Professor Isabelle Peret, of the University of Montreal’s Center for Research on Brain, Music and Language.
As scientists explained, babies actually do have the mental ability to be absorbed and distracted by music. Thus, they are more similar than previously thought to their older counterparts, who show signs of being “entertained”, such as drumming, nodding their heads or tapping their feet.
All in all, it appears that when babies feel distress music is much more effective than talking, especially when it involves simple, repetitive melodies.
When it comes to comforting and calming down a child, singing nursery rhymes is much more soothing. Unfortunately, this strategy is seldom used by Western mothers, who aren’t aware of how valuable it can be.
This can lead to frustration and even anger, when the parent fails to appease the child, and in worst case scenarios it can also result in neglect or physical abuse.
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