The Effects of Mother-Infant Singing on Emotional Closeness, Affect, Anxiety And Stress Hormones

This article provides evidence on the psychobiological impact of "infant-directed singing" on mothers.

The Effects of Mother-Infant Singing on Emotional Closeness, Affect, Anxiety And Stress Hormones

  • Authors: Daisy Fancourt and Rosie Perkins
  • Music & Science, 1 (2018)

The authors conclude that singing is associated with increases in perceived mother-infant closeness. The findings support previous research on the effects of singing on closeness and social bonding.

Mother-infant bonding

Mother-infant bonding takes place over a period of weeks and months after birth and is important for the development of secure infant attachment. Bonding is also associated with psychological and behavioural states of mothers.

For example, mothers experiencing anxiety or postnatal depression tend to show decreased levels of affective communication with their babies (Milligan et al, 2003). Psychopharmacological studies on postnatal depression have found that medication can reduce the symptoms of depression, but that this has little impact on mother-infant interactions and bonding.

The role of music

Singing has the potential to support mother-infant bonding. It has been proposed that singing is a form of "motherese", a style of infant-directed speech consisting of exaggerations, elevated pitch, slow repetitions, and melodic elaborations of vocal communication. Motherese occurs in cultures globally, suggesting that it evolved as a way of supporting mother-infant interactions and facilitating nurturing while babies are at an early stage of development. Motherese engages infants' attention much more than standard talking and leads to increased infant vocalisations and emotional synchronicity with their mothers, according to research by Saint-Georges et al in 2013.

Maternal singing has been shown to achieve many of the same responses as motherese, including modulation of infant arousal, more intense engagement, visual attention, and movement reduction. These behaviours are all associated with bonding. Mother-infant singing also has wider benefits in terms of stress reduction and affect regulation, in both mothers and infants.

Study design

This study explored two questions:

  • How does infant-directed singing modulate perceived emotional closeness, affect, and anxiety in mothers with young infants in comparison to a non-musical interactive activity?
  • How do changes in perceived emotional closeness in response to singing interact with changes in affect and anxiety?

This experimental study was conducted in West London with 43 women (average age 35.3 years) and their babies (average age eight months). Two group workshops were held - the experimental singing condition, which involved different types of singing over a period of 35 minutes; and the comparison condition, which involved non-melodic play and talk with their babies and other mothers for 35 minutes - with mothers and their babies attending both, with a short break in between. Half of the mothers and babies attended the singing workshop first and half attended the non-singing workshop first.

Outcomes were measured in relation to:

  • Emotional closeness (Inclusion of other in self scale)
  • Affect and anxiety (using positive and negative affect scale and saliva samples).

Study findings and limitations

The study found that:

  • Singing led to a significant increase in perceived mother-infant closeness compared to talking and playing with their baby.
  • Both the singing and the comparison conditions were associated with decreased negative affect. However, singing resulted in significantly greater increases in positive affect and decreases in negative affect than the comparison condition.
  • Although singing led to reduced anxiety, this was not significantly different to the comparison condition. However, singing resulted in a greater decrease in the stress hormone cortisol than the comparison condition, which is in line with the findings of other studies on singing.

The study has a number of limitations that need to be borne in mind when extrapolating the findings more widely:

  • The demographic characteristics of the mothers are not representative of the general population.
  • The focus was on maternal perceptions of mother-infant closeness rather than objective observational measures.
  • The study looked at single time points before and after a short intervention, which cannot be taken as a direct proxy for longer term mother-infant bonding.

Implications for practice

  • Singing has the potential to increase bonding and attachment between mothers and babies and should be encouraged by professionals who work with them
  • Mother-infant singing and music workshops should be promoted as a universal, community based intervention.

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust.

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on early childhood development. Click here for more

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