For centuries, we have sung lullabies to our babies to send them off to sleep.
But the latest research suggests music can do far more for babies and young children than simply making them nod off.
Exposing a baby to music may help improve their emotional well-being – and assist with learning too.
Babies are born with the ability to hear and a sense of rhythm, and research shows they can even remember tunes they heard in the womb.
In a study carried out by Paris Descartes University in 2011, fifty babies were played a piece of music three weeks before they were born and then had the same tune replayed to them when they were one month old. All showed signs that they recognised the music.
There is also overwhelming scientific evidence that playing or singing music to your unborn child is actually good for them.
“It is definitely beneficial to sing and play music when your baby is still in the womb,” says Ruth Hunston, a music therapist who works for music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins.
“It means that after they are born, when they hear this music again, it helps them connect to their surroundings and makes it feel familiar and soothing.
“For a mother to sing to her baby is also a wonderful way for them to bond. Mothers don’t have to be especially musical to get their babies to respond - their voice is a baby’s favourite music. A baby can’t sing but it can make cooing noises back.”
Bonding through music is especially beneficial for mothers who have post-natal depression, adds Ruth.
“It helps them feel connected to their baby and boosts their confidence about being a parent.”
But it is not just infants who benefit from the sound of music.
Work by Exeter University found that exposing children under two to music and learning rhymes, can actually make it easier for a child to learn to read and write.
“Some of it is to do with improving auditory (listening) skills which can have benefits for language development,” explains Dr Kate Overy, a senior lecturer in music at the University of Edinburgh.
“The auditory system develops very early on in the fetus and research suggests that listening to music in early childhood can have beneficial effects on language skills.”
There are now a growing number of music classes for toddlers – such as Monkey Music and Musical Steps – where children get to sing, dance and play musical instruments.
And research shows attending these fun classes can have real benefits.
A study published earlier this year in Developmental Science and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found that one-year-old babies who take part in interactive music classes with their parents smile more, communicate better and show more sophisticated responses to music.
“They are great for developing confidence,” says Ruth Hunston. “The first time a child shakes a rattle
and someone responds to that, you can see that child grow in confidence.
“It helps with cognitive development too. Just getting them to sing along to nursery rhymes encourages focus and encourages them to learn.“The thing about music and songs is that they have a structure and this is really helpful for very young children and babies."
So is playing music to your child as beneficial as reading to them?
Well, perhaps not quite – but exposure to music certainly seems to play a role in a child’s healthy development, says Dr Overy.
“It’s a different kind of sound (from speech) and seems to engage more parts of the brain,” she says.
“For example, music often engages the emotional regions of the brain.
“An interesting study conducted in Germany, compared the actions of pre-school children who had just played a song-game together, with children who just played a story-game together.
“They found the children who sang together were more helpful to one another afterwards than those who had just played the story-game – suggesting that music can have positive social effects as well as cognitive effects.”
However, it is only now that the benefits of music are starting to be acknowledged.
“People are only just starting to recognise that music is more than just a “frill”,” she says.
When it comes to music lessons, it is best to wait until a child is about five, says Anita Lee, director of First Tutors who specialise in finding music teachers for children and adults (www.firsttutors.com).
“At about five a child has developed enough physiologically to start playing the piano,” she says.
“String instruments like the violin you need to wait a bit longer, until a child is about 7 or 8, because they are harder to hold and play.
“Generally it is best to start children learning an instrument before they are 10 as this is when it is easiest for them to pick it up and brings them most added on benefits such as confidence and neurological development.”
for little ones:
By Lucy Elkins