There are many benefits to be gained from
singing rhymes with babies and children whilst encouraging them to do simple exercises
in time to the rhythm of the songs. Not
only can singing and movement enhance a child’s overall development, it can be
fun and enhances communication between parents and their baby because it gives
them the opportunity to watch and learn about their growing child. As communication, understanding and respect
are enhanced, so too is the parent-child bond.
At birth a baby’s motor development is immature, so
initially they rely on a set of basic primitive reflexes to assist them in the
early stages of their life. Primitive reflexes require no frontal brain (thought
process) activity; as they are activated from the brainstem, which creates a specific,
automatic response. These reflexes are
essential for helping a baby through the birth, as well as for survival in the
first few weeks of life and are progressively integrated into movements that
help them through some early developmental stages (Goddard-Blythe, 2005). For example, the Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex
supports the early stages of head control, balance and postural stability; the
Asymmetrical Tonic Neck reflex assists early reaching movements; and the
Babinski Reflex helps with commando crawling.
As a baby’s motor development improves, the primitive
reflexes gradually become inhibited and are replaced by postural reflexes;
which help them to balance and coordinate their body (Goddard-Blythe,
2005). These reflexes will remain with
the child for life. The
ability to balance is largely due to the vestibular system, which is situated
in the inner ear. Movement stimulates
the vestibular system and in the early months of life this greatly contributes
to the necessary development of motor skills (Goddard-Blythe, 2005).
more a baby has the opportunity to move, the more they will develop muscle
strength and tone, which is also important to help a child balance and
coordinate properly (Goddard-Blythe, 2005), so that they can eventually stand
and walk and manage the world around them.
The more a baby has the opportunity to move freely and
to experience the world from many different dimensions (such as moving round in
circles, up and down, from side to side as well as backwards and forwards),
greater is their ability to take control of their movements; and the
development of postural reflexes will be enhanced.
If a child does not pass through each of the
developmental milestones (sitting, rolling over, commando crawling, crawling on
all fours, standing, walking) the postural reflexes may remain under-developed
(Goddard-Blythe, 2005). This could be
detrimental to the developing child, who may struggle to socialise or build
relationships; and they may have emotional issues and learning difficulties
later in life (Goddard-Blythe, 2005).
The cross-lateral movements used at the crawling stages
are not only vital to help inhibit primitive reflexes and develop postural
ones: they will also help general brain development,
particularly in relation to the child’s ability to read when they reach school
1999). This is because this type of
movement supports the development of the corpus callosum, which connects the
two hemispheres of the brain – thus encouraging greater cooperation between
both sides of the brain (Hannaford, 1995).
THE NEED FOR MUSIC, SINGING AND RHYME
In light of the fact that music forms part of the
structure of a society; and nursery rhymes form part of a culture’s linguistic
customs and traditions, it is not surprising to find that music is considered
to be crucial for a child’s social development (Cross, 2005).
From birth, a baby is capable of communicating and
actually becoming involved in a dialogue that involves turn-taking; much as a
conversation between adults does. In
particular, a baby enjoys ‘chatting’ with their mother, whose voice is familiar
to them because they became used to (and biased towards) their voice whilst in
the womb (Welsh, 2005); and because it is the right pitch and melody to keep
the baby interested in a ‘conversation’ (Trevarthen & Malloch, 2002; Welsh,
2005). It is important that a baby is
able to see and hear the person singing or speaking to them, which tends to
prompt them to become more attentive and calm (Welsh, 2005). This ultimately enhances the infant-parent
interaction (Sawyer, 2005), because whilst taking time to ‘chat’ or sing, parent’s
will have the opportunity to increase their understanding of their baby’s cues;
and the baby will be able to learn from the experience as they start to interpret
their parents’ emotions and behaviour towards them.
However, issues arise for mothers with postnatal
illness, as they tend to have quieter, lower pitched voices and are less
inclined to observe and follow the turn-taking ‘rules’ of a conversation. Generally the pause between the mother’s
speech and the baby’s is longer than the baby is attuned to and prefers (Welsh,
Singing nursery rhymes may potentially help overcome
this situation, as the majority of rhymes need to be sung in a higher pitch
than normal, as well as at a specific (usually upbeat) speed and tempo.
Some parents do not have depression, but still feel
uncomfortable ‘chatting’ to their baby.
This is unfortunate, as it affects the child’s potential; in particular
language development and social ability.
Encouraging parents to sing to their baby overcomes their need to think
about what to ‘say’ to them.
Both music and language are considered to be ‘communicative mediums’ (Cross, 2005). Generally,
communication between a parent and baby is musical or ‘proto-musical’ (Cross,
2005) by nature because it includes pitch contours, rhythmical timing, turn-taking
and links sound and movement. There is
more than a notable connection between music and speech (Sawyer, 2005),
particularly as the strong timing and rhythmic elements of music impact on the
speech centres in the brain (Thaut, 2005).
Babies have the ability to imitate simple rhythms long before they
develop speech (Goddard-Blythe, 2005). A
baby’s babbling has pitch,
tone and rhythm - all of which are key elements of music and are deeply entwined
with early language development (Cross, 2005).
Adults generally tend to distinguish between ‘speech’
and ‘singing’, but babies and young children tend not to make this distinction
(Welsh, 2005). When
‘chatting’, babies will imitate the tone and tempo of adult speech, long before
they can talk. The sound of this
‘chatting’ is usually melodious, as if they are singing or humming a song (Goddard-Blythe,
2005). From a developmental point of
view, this is the fledging stages of a child’s vocabulary bank forming (Welsh,
In response to a baby’s need to sing when ‘chatting’,
it is common for parents to reply accordingly, using, what is known as, infant-directed
speech (‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’).
Infant-directed speech is, in fact, very similar to the singing of
lullabies and nursery rhymes; because the acoustic features tend to be simple,
repetitive, higher pitched than usual speech and expressive (Welsh, 2005).
Music and singing can be very positive for a young
child’s overall development. It can
affect the overall functioning of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems (Thurman
& Welsh, 2000). Music, in
particular, also contributes to brain development, as it is a powerful tool for
supporting learning and develops left-hemisphere abilities, and the development
of the inner ear and links motor skills, sounds and visual images that are essential
for reading and writing skills (Goddard-Blythe, 2005). Also, the critical aspects of timing and
sequencing within music and rhyme may positively affect a child’s attention and
their ability to make decisions (Thaut, 2005); and can enhance short-term
memory because of the repetitive nature of singing (Goddard-Blythe, 2005).
Although it is possible to experience
music in isolation and movement without music, often one enhances the other. Imagine how difficult it would be to stay
perfectly still whilst a favourite piece of music or song was playing? Or, how much easier an aerobics class is when
there is music and song to assist the timing of the exercises. This is because music and singing impact on
the sensory systems in the brain that control the timing, sequencing and
co-ordination of movement (Thaut, 2005).
Furthermore, sounds have the capacity to stimulate the spinal motor
neurons at the brainstem and spinal cord level.
This promotes a state of readiness for the execution of movement (Thaut,
The repetitive element of singing rhymes
is enhanced when accompanied by rhythmical exercises, which can help a child
retain their flexibility, gain strength and improve muscle tone; as well as
potentially enhancing the development of co-ordination and balance. Joining a class to
enjoy the benefits of rhyme and exercise gives the opportunity for parents to
sing in a group, which can reduce stress hormones and
muscle tension and help the heart rate normalise. Also, combining
rhymes and exercise for children gives the parent and child time together to just
have some ‘fun’!
Pauline Carpenter is the Chair for the Guild of Infant
and Child Massage www.gicm.org.uk and a
Director of Touch-Learn Ltd. www.touchlearn.co.uk , a training
company offering infant massage and Rhythm Kids™ music and movement teacher
training courses. Pauline has also
co-authored ‘Teach Yourself Baby Massage And Yoga’ and ‘Rhythm Kids: Fun Time
Exercises for Babies’.
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