Why do we lullaby?

I know what you’re thinking… a lullaby is for mothers, or daycares, or something you press play on and let baby sleep. But if you’ll humor me for a moment I want to try and communicate to you just what a lullaby is and where it might come from…

During the course of both of my boy’s lives I have sang songs to them when I was changing their diaper, cooking their food, giving them a bath, or just to be silly.  I never thought much about the intricacy of the phrasing or the melody or even what I was saying most of the time,  it was a spontaneous thing that served  the purpose of both calming them down and myself, or making us laugh. We carry this tradition on to this very day, and I’ve even taken to record some of these tunes… maybe they’ll pass some of them down to their children. Neato to think about…  but anyway I started to think about just where exactly does a lullaby come from? What could be the reason that these things originated and have been passed down as an older tradition through time.  This is a uniquely human thing to do when caring for our young. Chimpanzees, macaques, and even kangaroos carry their fussy young, but we added the singing.  It seems that adults and infants typically vie for an adults attention in different ways demanding different levels of that attention.  But a child is something altogether different, child requires all of your attention. Now if you think back to the time when mother was in the caves, she has to get water, prepare food or even hide from other predators… this requires a great deal of hands on attention, so possibly cave mother tried to sing to not only soothe but also as a way to provide location, proximity, or even direction. We have to think of it in terms of most children are born prematurely in a way which is to say that unlike a horse a child is not going to stand up and walk in the first few moments after birth, there comes a point when baby gets too heavy to be carried around on a constant basis, something more practical needed to happen to ensure safety and soothing. A mother using her voice could affect the safety of baby while simultaneously offering the best chance at survival. But, dear reader, we are fully aware that parent and child is also fraught with conflict because of the quality of that attention. A parent seeks to satisfy the need for attention in the baby as best they know how so they vocalize, but this vocalization requires memory and also skill. More demands for attention could also be indicative of more complicated vocalizations which could just be the way that the lullaby came to be! Attention is invisible by and large and so we need to gauge the quality of that attention… For example I could not be singing a lullaby to you if I was running away from danger, or if I am interacting with one of the other children, so a lullaby in its essence is an extremely personal and personalized form of attention that requires all of your attention,  even turning your head creates a different way that that lullaby is being communicated and it also puts stress on your vocal chords there by baby being able to distinguish that the attention is not directed specifically toward it,  so a lullaby is inherently something that cannot be faked at it’s core while presenting it to a child for the sake of soothing and scratching the itch of attention.  If you know much about ancient history you know that there were various vocalizations that people would make whenever they were rummaging through the jungles that they could keep in touch with each other. All these vocalizations were very quick, sharp, and identifiable as either a sound of danger or food, a quick heads up I’m on my way to you, or it’s just me! When presented with a song a child is always attentive to this song whether it’s by a stranger or us, by a parent. There is something in that soft melody that immediately lulls a child into satiating their craving attention.  

 Now let’s take that one step further, it doesn’t matter if you have the voice of an angel or it sounds like a bunch of rocks are stuck in a frogs throat,  The sound that comes out of your mouth is intimately connected to your child and is almost immediately identifiable shortly after birth.  This connection that you have simply by your vocalization is something that leaves an indelible mark on your child. The tone of your voice can immediately snap your child to attention, allow them to know you are angry, or let them know you’re in a good mood. Children are very quick to pick up on vocal cues.  Some people go around humming, or whistling, and some even talk to themselves when they are caring for a child that they can’t seem to get to calm down.  What I should stress here is that everybody sings… You read that correctly, everybody sings at some point!  Something as simple as a lullaby can come from you dad and it doesn’t have to be intricate, it does not have to sound like Brahms or have the lyrical quality of Robert Hunter, all it has to do is come from you, your heart… Somewhere deep inside when you think about how much you love this precious little child that you were holding, it wells up from somewhere and comes out of your mouth like a symphony to that child.  Don’t think too much about it, don’t plan it, just allow whatever it is you’re feeling to melodically flow out of your mouth from your heart to your lips.  We no longer have to worry about predators eating us for dinner, we do not live in caves anymore unless that’s your thing of course, and I can tell you that whether you have a musical background or not your child will appreciate every note. I sang songs about freckles, or a weird soup I was going to make while teaching my son different body parts, macabre perhaps but did you ever really think about some of the fairy tales we read our children? 

The main point to get across here is lullabies are a very sweet tender moment that you can share with your child whether they are crying and wanting attention or even in their toddler and young adult years whenever you’re just trying to reconnect or reinforce the relationship you already have.  These are really simple every day opportunities that we have to carve indelibly into the hearts of our children just how much we love them, this is a magic trick we can perform at the end of a long hectic day whenever all we want to do is crash and we take this moment to muster up some melody that can serve as a meditation to us as we are unwinding ourselves.  There is no shortage of opportunities we can take as parents to reconnect with our children. Lullabies in our home are a tradition, and like most people we have our favorites also. But coming from a musical household we always liked to make our own silly songs or even our own tender ballads to express our gratitude or sometimes our frustrations! You’d be amazed at what you can turn into a lullaby!

From one father to another: allow your child to see a softer side, a gentler side, it’s reassuring! You just might find yourself humming to yourself or planning your own lullaby recital! ?And when those heavy eyes get heavier, the moon starts rising high, right on the other side of the evening is a new day to try…?