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Learning to Listen Part 1: From Day One

Hearing is just one of our five senses, one we often take for granted. Why is it crucial for early childhood development, and how do we get from hearing – indiscriminately taking in sound – to listening – deliberately processing the noise that’s important to our survival and well-being? Read about the importance of the early days and how you can harness the power of music for the well-being of your family.

This article was first published by Nadja Flowerdew @ Weaving Rainbows on 6 January 2019. To read more of her articles, make your way over to

Let us soak our babies in music Swaddle them in sound Hold them in the embrace of our voices Dance and sway with them through life The sound of our heartbeat in one tiny ear Our songs in the other

We experience the world through our five senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch tell us what it is like to be alive and what we need to do to remain in that state. In some animal species, certain senses are far more highly developed than others. Eagles can spot from over a mile away whether you’re smiling or frowning, dogs can predict their working owner’s time of return by their smell fading from the home and barn owls can hear the heartbeat of a single mouse hiding underground!

For us adults, vision is the primary sense. The information we take in through our eyes is thought to make up 90% of what we know about the outside world. But developmentally, vision arrives on the scene comparatively late in the day – well after birth. The womb is a dark place and while a newborns’ eyes are in full working order at birth, it takes babies time to adjust to a world of light and dark, sharp outlines and moving shapes. Think of a newborn squinting uncertainly at a face just centimetres away.

However, there is a sense that beats vision hands down when it comes to being ready from the moment go.

“Babies’ […] hearing sense is actually the most important sense they have for the first two years of their lives, the sense that gathers the most information about their world.” – Dr Anita Collins, music educator and researcher in brain development

The sense of hearing is functional from the 22nd week of pregnancy, and with the womb being a noisy place, babies have plenty of time to hone this skill well before birth. They get used to tummy gurgles, rhythmic  heart sounds, the voices of mum, dad and older siblings and through that to the cadences and rhythms of the language they will end up speaking.

Little wonder, then, that Dr Anita Collins, music educator and researcher in brain development, has concluded that “Babies’ auditory processing or hearing sense is actually the most important sense they have for the first two years of their lives, the sense that gathers the most information about their world”(1). But there’s more to hearing than meets the eye…

Music to My Ears Recent research suggests that babies are born musical. All babies, everywhere. In fact, newborns appear to hear language as music. That’s right! A group of very brave mothers consented to have MRI scans taken of their one- and two-day old babies. Scientists were amazed to see that when these mothers talked to their tiny infants, their little brains processed mum’s voice not as language brain but – you guessed it – as music (2)! No wonder, then, that more and more scientists argue that music is not an optional extra, an “ancillary ability.” The reverse, in fact, is true – “language is a special type of music” and “musical hearing and ability is essential to language acquisition” (3).

“Language is a special type of music” – Brandt et al.

I love it when cutting-edge research validates and vindicates age-old wisdom. All over the world and through the ages, babies have been both stimulated and soothed with singing. Grandma’s magic touch may be down to nothing more and nothing less than plenty of experience and a few lullabies – which we can all learn! But while singing is a fantastic parenting tool, it does so much more than help you calm a griping baby.

Enter Attachment According to Bowlby’s now widely accepted theory of attachment, an infant’s most primal need is the need for secure attachment – the relationship with his or her most constant, dependable caregiver, in most cases the mother. This bond goes two ways and healthy mother-child (and later parent-child) attachment has been named the single most important factor in a child’s future emotional well-being (4). Parents and children who are attuned to each other communicate well and lead less stressful lives.

Secure attachment protects children from abuse, firstly by fostering parental empathy and a greater ability to respond to situational and behavioural challenges, preventing parents from “losing it” with their children, and secondly by enabling parents to sense when something is not quite right, for instance because of a third party threatening the child’s well-being (more on attachment parenting here).

Attachment, however, doesn’t happen automatically, in a vacuum. Rather, it is a relationship that grows over time and needs careful tending. During the process of birth, a cocktail of hormones is released, which promote mother-child bonding. The sight, smell and touch of the newborn trigger strong emotions in the new mother, which awaken powerful protective instincts in her – mother love can feel very overwhelming! But this need not be the case. 

There are many factors that can disrupt the normal process of bonding, be it maternal stress during the pregnancy, insecure life circumstances, a traumatic birth, or a very unsettled baby. For these families, growing a secure relationship with their new baby can be much more difficult. Advice around improving early bonding mostly focuses on the sense of touch – keeping baby close with plenty of skin to skin contact (kangaroo care and babywearing) has been documented to make a huge difference.

Maybe talking and singing to baby in the context of bonding has been given less attention than it is due because it is something that happens almost automatically when baby is kept close. However, in the age of smartphones and a myriad other distractions, this cannot be taken for granted anymore. In fact, Peter Hobson, professor of developmental psychopathology, suggests that it may be precisely the paucity of “emotionally satisfying interactions” with primary caregivers in the first 1 ½ years of life that accounts, at least in part, for the epidemic of autism and autistic spectrum disorders that is ravaging the UK and other industrialised nations (5).

Music is not an optional extra, an “ancillary ability”.

So how to give a baby enough “emotionally satisfying interactions”? How not to run out of things to say and do? The answer is – sing. Says Sue Palmer “Jigging on a parent’s knee, chanting, singing, or collapsing into giggles as they play ‘This little piggy went to market’ – over and over again – is intensely pleasurable for small children, while the constant rhythm, rhyme and repetition tunes their bodies to balance, their ears to sounds and their minds to pattern, opening up the neural networks that lead to fluent speech.” (6)

Calling All Dads

Make singing simple, appropriate songs part of your everyday routine and you have a very powerful tool in your parenting toolkit. At the tiny stage, your singing voice and gentle swaying motions are wonderfully soothing for a baby in this big, cold, scary world. And Dads – you are especially good at this because baby loves resting their little head on your chest and listening to your deep voice. Talk of Grandma’s magic touch – I have always marvelled at how my husband managed to settle our three children when they were tiny, just by resting them on his chest and humming. I think it reminds them of their home for nine months – warmth, gentle motion, deep rhythmic sounds – peace.

Music grows with your child. At first, humming may be all that’s needed, but there’s a world of sound and motion to discover: dance and hum along with them to your favourite music (low volume for tiny ears) or play any number of singing games – “Row, row, row your boat” is great when they’re able to support their head well and sit with support, from about four or five months (don’t rush it though – if they’re not ready, just rock them from side to side in your arms). “This little piggy”, “Round and round the garden” and “Criss cross, applesauce” are firm favourites with older babies and well into toddlerhood. Sing “up, up, up” up the scale as you go up the stairs and “down, down, down” as you go down and you may find that your toddler listens to sung commands much better than spoken ones! The sky’s the limit when it comes to ways in which you can incorporate music into everyday life but if you need ideas, have a look here. The more you do it, the better you get at singing – and baby at listening, responding and loving being a social being. And surely this is what we want for them the most.

Look out for the next article in this series – Learning to Listen Part 2: The Toddler Years


(1) New York Times (2018) “In Lullabies, a Chance for Parent and Child to Bond” (2) Quoted in Dr Anita Collins, “What if every child had access to music education from birth?” TEDxCanberra (3) Brandt et al (2012) Music and Early Language Acquisition, 2012 (4) Sue Palmer (2006), Toxic Childhood, p.107 (5) Quoted in Sue Palmer (2006), Toxic Childhood, p.110 (6) Ibid p.115

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