The Surprising Benefit Of Moving And Grooving With Your Kid

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 9:31 am

People who spend time with young children know firsthand the power of music.

It's easy entertainment.

And any teacher who works in early childhood will tell you that singing can yield amazing results. "If we didn't sing the cleanup song, I don't think anything would have gotten cleaned up," says Laura Cirelli, who worked as an assistant at a day care center in the late 2000s.

But there may be other ways — surprising ways — in which music plays a role in raising a human.

That's a question that Cirelli is pursuing in her postdoctoral research in early childhood development at the University of Toronto, Mississauga.

"I find babies are so impressive. We can't really ask them what they're thinking. We have to come up with clever ways of figuring out what's going on in their little brains," she says.

One thing Cirelli is curious about: What makes young children behave in a pro-social way — taking actions that help others and benefit the group?

She invited a bunch of parents to bring their toddlers into her lab.

"We were specifically testing 14-month-old babies," she says. "So they're walking, not yet talking."

These 14-month-olds said bye-bye to Mommy and Daddy and were then strapped into front-facing baby carriers worn by assistants in the study. The researchers turned on some music. Usually it was "Twist and Shout."

And the person carrying the baby began to bounce.

"We would go down on one beat and then up," says Cirelli.

So if you're this baby, you're strapped onto someone's chest and you can't see that person's face. Instead, you're looking in front of you at another person whom you've never seen before.

"The person facing the baby would either move in synchrony with how they were being bounced, or they would either move too quickly or too slowly so that their movements weren't aligned with what the baby was experiencing," says Cirelli.

After about 2 1/2 minutes, the bouncing stopped and the baby was removed from the carrier.

Next came the test.

"This person who had faced them and moved either in or out of sync with them would play little games with them; they would draw with markers or throw paper balls in a bucket," says Cirelli.

Every now and then, the assistant who had faced the baby would drop a marker or ball and then pretend the object was out of reach.

"So she would reach pathetically for about 30 seconds," says Cirelli, "and we'd look to see what the babies did in this really weird situation where this person they just met needs help but isn't really asking for help."

Cirelli found that babies who were bounced in sync with a dance partner were more likely to volunteer to help than babies who were bounced out of sync.

And it wasn't just the bouncing. It was the music, too. Cirelli ran another experiment where there wasn't any music. Instead, they played nature sounds, and the researchers bounced the babies in sync with the nature sounds.

Cirelli found that babies who bounced in sync with nature sounds were still more likely to help the assistants. But there was a higher fuss-out, meaning that the babies listening to nature sounds didn't want to be held and bounced. They got upset. They didn't want to continue bouncing. "Whereas the experiment with music in the background, they were much happier," Cirelli says.

Moving together to the music created a connection — a connection that manifested itself through helpfulness.

Cirelli decided to look at another type of music used to forge connections — one that may be soothing.

Lullabyes.

Cirelli recruited 30 moms to come into the lab with their babies.

"They would be in a soundproof room, babies would be in a little highchair and mom would sit facing them," she says.

Then the researchers measured stress levels for the mothers and children.

"So we use stickers on the bottom of the baby's foot and on Mom's fingertips. And what we were able to measure with this was their sweat gland activity," Cirelli says.

The mothers were then asked to sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" as a lullaby.

"When Mom sang in a soothing way, both Mom and baby's arousal level decreased as the song progressed," Cirelli says. "So what this is telling us is that lullabies are really working to calm not only the baby, but also mother."

Now it's not a surprise that lullabies are soothing to children. Most parents would likely agree based on their experience.

But those parents might also be holding the baby, rocking the baby.

In the experiment, there was no touching. "We wanted to see what the song is doing without tactile input," Cirelli says.

And it definitely led to a reduction in stress.

But the main take-home lesson, says Cirelli, is that the lullaby also affected the mom. "We usually think of that unidirectional relationship: When Mom sings to baby, it's to change the baby's behavior," Cirelli says. "But I think the really new interesting thing here is considering how it is also affecting the mom."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

People who spend time with young children know firsthand the power of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD MACDONALD HAD A FARM")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Old MacDonald had a farm.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I mean, it's easy entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD MACDONALD HAD A FARM")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) E-I-E-I-O.

MARTIN: It can be effective when you need a little break from baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE STAR")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Twinkle, twinkle little star.

GREENE: As part of a new series we are launching this week on parenting, Shankar Vedantam of NPR's Hidden Brain brings us some new insights about the role music plays in raising a human.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: For researchers interested in child behavior, a day care center can double as a laboratory.

LAURA CIRELLI: I find babies are so impressive. We can't really ask them what they're thinking. We have to come up with clever ways of figuring out what's going on in their little brains.

VEDANTAM: This is Laura.

CIRELLI: Hi, I'm Laura Cirelli.

VEDANTAM: Singing was a daily part of Laura's life when she worked in child care.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARNEY AND FRIENDS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere.

CIRELLI: If we didn't sing the cleanup song with the preschoolers, then I don't think anything would have ever gotten cleaned up.

VEDANTAM: Another daily part of her life - cute interactions with toddlers.

CIRELLI: One little kid who I had a good connection with, she grabbed my hand and brought me over to the little slide, and she really wanted to go down the slide. You could tell. So I helped her up the little stairs, and I caught her at the bottom of the slide, and all the rest of the toddlers in this playground just looked over and saw her and looked at each other and then ran over to the slide and formed a cute little lineup waiting their turn for me to help them down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Laura is now a postdoc at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She studies early childhood development. With years of research under her belt, Laura looks back at that moment at the slide and sees it as a form of communication.

CIRELLI: It seems like a super simple thing, but there's a lot of understanding about themselves, about other people, about goals and activities that they need to really completely understand in order for that to happen.

VEDANTAM: Laura says actions like standing in line for the slide are prosocial behaviors, actions we take to help others and to benefit the group. She decided to study what she'd seen on the playground more systematically. She invited a bunch of parents to bring their toddlers into the lab.

CIRELLI: We were specifically testing 14-month-old babies. So they're walking. They're not quite talking.

VEDANTAM: These 14-month-olds said bye-bye to Mommy and Daddy and then were strapped into front-facing baby carriers worn by assistants in the study. The researchers then turned on some music.

CIRELLI: Usually, it was "Twist And Shout" playing in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEATLES SONG, "TWIST AND SHOUT")

VEDANTAM: And the person carrying the baby began to bounce.

CIRELLI: So we would bounce them down on one beat and up on the other - down and up sort of thing.

VEDANTAM: So if you're this baby, you're strapped onto someone's chest, you can't see their face. Instead, you're looking in front of you at another person that you've never seen before.

CIRELLI: The person facing the baby would either move in synchrony with how they were being bounced or they would move either too quickly or too slowly so that their movements weren't aligned with what the baby was experiencing.

VEDANTAM: After about 2 1/2 minutes, the bouncing stopped and the baby was removed from the carrier.

CIRELLI: And then this person who had faced them and moved either in or out of sync with them would perform some little, simple social games with them. So she would do things like draw pictures with markers or throw paper balls in a bucket.

VEDANTAM: Every now and then, the assistant who had faced the baby would drop a marker or paper ball and then pretend like the object was out of reach.

CIRELLI: So she would reach pathetically for them for about 30 seconds, and we'd look to see what the babies did in this really weird situation where this person they just met needs help but isn't really asking for help and doesn't really seem to be able to achieve their goal on their own.

VEDANTAM: Laura found that babies who were bounced in sync with a dance partner were more likely to volunteer to help than babies who were bounced out of sync.

CIRELLI: We actually did have another experiment in this series where they didn't have music in the background. They just had nature sounds because we wanted to know if the music was really contributing.

VEDANTAM: Laura found that babies bounced in sync with nature sounds still helped the assistants, but there was a higher fuss-out rate.

CIRELLI: Meaning that they were too upset to really continue. They didn't want to be held and bounced whereas in the experiment with music in the background, they were much happier.

VEDANTAM: Moving together to the music created a connection. This connection manifested itself through helpfulness. Laura decided to take a look at another type of music used to forge connections, one that's soothing. If you're sitting in traffic, we hope it's not too soothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Laura asked 30 mothers to come into the lab with their babies.

CIRELLI: They would be in a soundproof room, and babies would be sat in a little high chair, and moms would sit facing them.

VEDANTAM: They measured stress levels.

CIRELLI: We used little stickers on the bottom of the baby's foot and on the mother's fingertips. And what we're able to measure with this is actually their sweat gland activity.

VEDANTAM: The mothers were then asked to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" as a lullaby.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE STAR")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are. Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.

CIRELLI: When Mom sang in a soothing way, both Mom and baby's arousal levels decreased as the song progressed. So what this is telling us is that lullabies are really working to calm not only baby but also the mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE STAR")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) How I wonder what you are.

VEDANTAM: Is this just confirming what our intuitions are telling us or do you think it's telling us something more than that?

CIRELLI: Anecdotally, I'm sure most parents would agree that lullabies soothe their babies, but usually when we're singing lullabies to our babies, we're holding them and we're rocking them. So we wanted to know what the song is doing, removing all of that tactile input. We usually think of that unidirectional relationship. Like, when Moms sing to babies, it is to change the baby's behavior. But I think it's - the really new, interesting thing here is considering how it's also affecting the mom.

VEDANTAM: It's natural to think about how parents shape the behavior of their children. What we often don't recognize is all the ways our children are shaping us. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

GREENE: Shankar is the host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast and radio show. And you can hear the show on many of our member stations or wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "BIRDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.