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Are babies born to dance? Experts discuss how music stimulates a baby's brain

Can listening to music actually make a baby smarter?
Have fun.
Listening to music gives babies' brains a "full brain" workout, one expert explained.Liderina / Getty Images stock

Like many first-time parents, Caitlin Abber, 37, did not imagine that her foray into motherhood would include enduring a global pandemic. So when the first-time mom was faced with caring for her daughter, Simone, and working from home, anxiety and overwhelm were high. But just like COVID-19 brought a slew of unforeseen challenges for moms, an unlikely source of support also presented itself: music.

“Our daughter started walking this winter, when we were really stuck inside, so we started having what we called ‘parties,’” Abber told TODAY Health. “Basically we'd put on music, bring out snacks, and the three of us would dance for as long as possible. She absolutely loved it.”

Abber said some type of music can be heard in her home most of the time, and to the constant delight of 15-month-old Simone. “She does a side-to-side hip sway, and sometimes she stomps her feet,” she says. “Occasionally she’ll hold on to the TV stand and do a modified twerk. She also loves to clap and bounce up and down. At this point I can say, 'Simone, are you dancing?’ and she’ll do one of the above, music or not.”

Whether it’s happily bopping to their parents’ early aughts emo favorites, or becoming mesmerized by another rendition of "Elmo’s Song," babies seem to have a natural fascination with all things music. But what happens to a baby’s brain when they listen to music, and how can parents use music to not only soothe their child, but help them reach key physical and cognitive developmental milestones? TODAY spoke with a few experts to break down why music benefits babies and parents alike, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

What happens to your baby’s brain when they listen to music?

“The biggest thing that we know about what music does to the brain is that music increases blood flow,” Cheryl Gelber, an early childhood special educator and director at the New York Center for Infants & Toddlers, told TODAY. “And what research has found is that when children have engaged in music instruction, we can positively influence how brain signals flow and how the brain processes information. When there is music happening and the brain becomes activated, all parts of the brain become activated.”

One 2016 study out of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences found that music improved 9-month-old babies’ ability to process both music and new speech sounds.

“This means that early, engaging musical experiences can have a more global effect on cognitive skills," Christina Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS and lead author of the study, said. And a 2012 study from McMaster University found that 1-year-old babies who participate in music classes “smile more, communicate better, and show earlier and more sophisticated brain responses to music.”

Just like routinely going to the gym helps to build your muscles, consistently listening to music helps babies’ brains experience what Gelber calls a “full brain workout” that can help your baby in a variety of ways.

“Because their brain is still developing, you’re allowing that strengthening to help develop their language skills, their cognitive skills, their social understanding and their emotional functioning,” Gelber explained. “So it almost primes them and makes them better able to learn from other experiences that also foster those areas of development.”

Can listening to music help a baby roll over, crawl, walk or hit another physical milestones?

Abber said that, to her surprise, music actually helped her baby learn how to better move her body. “I actually think her toy piano was a big factor in how she learned to sit, stand and now climb,” she said. “She loves using it as a piano, but also as a step stool.”

Gelber noted that listening to music can actually help a baby improve their understanding of their body and how they can make their body move.

“Music triggers you to want to dance or tap or to shake or to shimmy or wiggle, so you’re building body awareness,” she said. “They’re learning how their body parts move, and if they’re dancing, they’re learning about gravity and balance. They’re just gaining a better control and understanding of their body by engaging in those movements while they’re engaging in music.”

Does listening to music actually make a baby smarter?

If you’re a parent, you’ve likely been told at least once that playing Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma or other types of classical music will make your baby smarter. But is it true?

“Loosely speaking, yes I guess you could say that,” Gelber says. “But the truth is that listening to Mozart or listening to any music stimulates brain activity. It promotes healthy brain activity. So we really have to think about what it means to become ‘smarter’ — we can be smart in a lot of different ways and our brains get activated and all those different parts of the brain become strengthened. So yeah you could say that listening to classical music makes you smarter, but really what it does is strengthen the brain and make those areas of the brain function in a healthier and stronger way.”

Can music help to soothe your baby in a time of duress?

During the pandemic, Abber said they had to test her 15-month-old for COVID-19 on more than one occasion — a process that any parent of a young child will tell you is far from ideal. But music, once again, came to the rescue.

“‘Bananaphone’ by Raffi was a song that always put a smile on her face, so we'd play it in the car while she was getting swabbed,” she explained. “It helped distract her and then cheer her up every time.”

One 2020 study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior found that infants relaxed when they were played a lullaby, regardless of which language the lullaby was played in. And one 2015 study out of the University of Montreal found that singing a song to soothe a fussy baby kept a baby calm twice as long as when a parent simply talked to their baby.

“The sounds of music, the temp, the intonations, the loudness or softness or speed, can all create a certain mood and it helps children learn what it feels like to feel excited or what it feels like to feel calm,” Gelber said. “Music can support an understanding of emotions in those ways.”

Music also releases “feel good” hormones like oxytocin — a hormone related to positive, happy feelings — while simultaneously suppressing toxic hormones, like cortisol, which is often associated with stress and can diminish brain function. “We know that cortisol and stress on the brain can prevent brain development,” Gelber explained, “so then engaging in music can help reduce the emission of those toxic chemicals and promote the emission of more of the healthy chemicals, which then makes the brain activate in a healthy way.”

Why you should join in on the musical fun

Gerber said that when listening to music, your baby is building connections which turn into memories. When you join in on the fun, they associate the feelings they’re experiencing while listening and dancing to music — joy, happiness, excitement — with your presence.

“When people engage in meaningful connections with a baby, perhaps through music, dancing, instruments or singing, babies make those connections and their brain further develops, creating a positive association with people,” Gelber explained. “It strengthens social understanding, it strengthens emotional understanding, and it really helps promote healthy mental health long term for babies.”

What you should consider before playing some tunes for your infant:

While all music is beneficial for your baby, Gerber said there are a few things to consider when making your song selection or baby-friendly playlist. Those things include:

  • Be mindful of the lyrics and what is appropriate for your child's developmental level.
  • Opt for songs with repetition, so kids can practice the words.
  • Choose music that matches where their singing range is.

“Sometimes what we find is that children will learn to sing before they learn to talk,” Gerber added.