His work has demonstrated that 5-month-olds whose parents sing them a song for just a week or two remember that melody eight months later. When they encounter strangers who sing to them in the lab, they pay more attention to someone singing the familiar melody than a different song, even one with the same words and rhythms.
Similarly, at 11 months, babies exposed to a song for one to two weeks will choose an object (a small stuffed lion, say) offered by a stranger singing the familiar song, preferring it to one presented by a stranger whose song they don’t know.
Infants pay more attention to singing than to speech, Dr. Trehub has shown, and that can pay off.
In a dim lab, 7- to 10-month-olds will listen to recorded singing for an average of nine minutes before they start fussing or crying, twice as long as they attend to recorded speech. “It’s a terrific distraction from a distressing event,” Dr. Trehub said. “You start singing and they’re completely transported.”
Babies confront a rush of strange new sights, sounds and experiences. That may explain why they respond so strongly to repetition. When we sing the same songs over and over, “infants have expectations about what comes next,” Dr. Trehub explained. “When their expectations are fulfilled, that’s rewarding and comforting.”
Eventually, they not only feel soothed by music but can use it to comfort themselves. I’m the Thursday day care provider for my granddaughter Bartola — a pet name that’s an affectionate nod to former Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon — and she frequently looks (and sounds) betrayed when I put her down for a nap. But then I often hear her singing about barnyard animals or twinkly stars, settling herself into sleep.
Dr. Mehr’s theory is that singing communicates that a particular grown-up — it could be a grandparent as well as a parent, and in many cultures probably is — is paying attention, something enormously important to vulnerable babies.
“It’s a signal of who’s a friend, a member of my group,” Dr. Mehr said.
Which helps explain why it doesn’t much matter how well or poorly you sing. It’s the attention, the feeling, that kids respond to. “You put all the gush into it and it’s the emotive quality that comes across, not whether you hit the right notes,” Dr. Trehub said.