There are hundreds of things that can keep a child from sleeping, including teething, growth spurts, reflux, learning to walk, autism or another disability, or simply being strong-willed. No matter the cause of sleeplessness, lullabies can help children get more rest.
I don’t know why I overlooked this time-tested tool when I became a mom. I love to sing, and my sister-in-law was using lullabies with my niece around the same time. Maybe I thought that in the 21st century parenting had progressed beyond cradle rocking and mothers humming. As with everything else related to parenting, I had to figure things out by doing what didn’t work, first.
When my son was 2, though, we knew we needed some help. My husband and I would put him to bed at 7 p.m. (with three stories, two songs, one prayer, lots of blankets, lovies, kisses and hugs) only to hear him talk to himself and play with his stuffed animals until 10 p.m. He would be tired the next day, nap too long in the afternoon and start the cycle over. Someone suggested playing music that had 60 beats per minute – the idea being that our son found sleep boring. Lullabies at that tempo give a child something to focus on and draw them into a relaxed state – and sleep.
I bought an album on iTunes and streamed it into his room through my smartphone and a portable Bluetooth speaker hung on a nail (some things do change with the times). By 8:30 p.m. the first night, he was asleep, giving my husband and me time for a glass of wine before our own bedtime.
Janet K. Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and the founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, says she’s seen this miracle before. “I had an ‘aha’ moment when my daughter was 18 months,” she says. “She had been sick, once she recovered she was having night terrors. On the second night of this, at 2 in the morning, I put a CD in, her eyes glazed over and she pointed to go to bed. She seemed to be more peaceful and had no more night terrors.”
Now Kennedy, author of “The Good Sleeper: The Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby – and You,” recommends this to clients old and young. “It’s like flipping the switch for the body; helping it know it’s time to relax,” she says. “We’re very trainable that way.”
Have someone you need to lull to sleep? Here are some tips.
– Start any time: Lullabies can help kids – and adults! – of any age settle down. It’s especially helpful as you first start to train babies to sleep, Kennedy says, but you can start at any age. “I love crutches, as long as it’s not you needing to hold your baby,” she explains. “They can respond to their environment and learn to sleep independently with the right set up. Maybe it’s a stuffed animal or a pacifier or even reading books. It works because it’s a cue. It puts a good routine in place.”
– Choose your tech: Decide whether you want to stream music from the cloud or play a physical CD. Our Bluetooth speaker was great at home and on the road until it died, but the music was tied to our phones. When we had sitters over and took our phones with us, our son didn’t have music. Now we use a portable CD player. Surprisingly, our son doesn’t touch it once it’s on at night because he likes the music so much. During the day, we bring it into the living room and put on dancing music. Unless you’re in a pinch, don’t use your actual phone under the door – as we learned after our son called his grandmother four times one night.
– Choose a tempo, and a style: Sixty-beat-per-minute music is the best. This tempo is good for learning, too, but if you go much higher than 60 bpm, the music can rev up the listener, rather than calm him. The tempo of about 60 to 80 beats per minute is a normal human heart rate at rest, so aiming for that range is akin to a baby listening to his mother’s heartbeat and falling asleep. You can find playlists on streaming services or YouTube. If you choose Classical, make sure it’s not too orchestral or upbeat. The Baroque artists, such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, or Vivaldi, are best for this. Native American music is also effective. Hipster parents might like Caspar Babypants – formerly the singer of The Presidents of the United States of America – who has a CD for kids called “Night Night.” We frequently use the Hidden in My Heart series. Kennedy recommends the classical album “Bedtime Beats.”
– Limit it to 30 minutes: Kennedy says not to let lullabies run all night, because the brain stays attuned to sound and might not get into a deep sleep. Playing music for a half-hour after bedtime is good. “I recommend using the old-fashioned white noise machines all night, but only using music as a sleep cue and as part of the bedtime routine,” she says. Also, you can start the music when you start the bedtime routine, to let kids know it’s time to wind down.
– Give it time: You might not see instant success like we did. A child may have to grow accustomed to music in the room – or might need it in tandem with a pile of stuffed animals and a weighted blanket. Like all things parenting, trial and error is key. For us, the music was a winner at night but distracting during naps. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t push it.
– Take it with you: Bring the lullabies along when you travel. Familiar tunes have helped both of our kids adapt to new sleeping situations and time zones multiple times. And thanks to the internet, your favorite music is easily accessible from anywhere. “I really like music because it’s portable and you can recreate those sleep cues when you’re away from home,” Kennedy says, “because travel stresses people out.”