Research proves lullabies really do help children feel better

21 Oct 2013, 12:05 p.m.

Berlin Heart patient Samuel on Bear Ward, with GOSH music specialist Dr Nick Pickett.

A study of children at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) has scientifically proven what parents have suspected for centuries – that lullabies really do help to soothe poorly children and reduce their perception of pain.

Results of the study, published by the journal Psychology of Music, show that a group of child patients at the hospital experienced lower heart rates, less anxiety and reduced perception of pain after they had lullabies sung to them.

However the same group of children experienced lower levels of such benefits when they had stories read to them instead of lullabies.

The research is a joint project between Great Ormond Street Hospital and the University of Roehampton, and funded by the British Academy.

GOSH music specialist Dr Nick Pickett, who oversaw the study at the hospital and has worked with cardio-respiratory patients at GOSH for the past 20 years, said:

“Parents have been singing to their children for thousands of years and they have always instinctively known that it helps their children to relax – but it’s exciting to have scientific evidence that lullabies offer genuine health benefits for the child.

“The findings also show that it’s not simply attention from an adult that soothes children, because the children did not experience the same benefits when they had stories read to them. There is something inherently special about music and singing to a child that achieves these results.”

Academics involved in the study included Professor David Hargreaves of the University of Roehampton, a leading expert on music and psychology, and Dr Elena Longhi, a psychologist previously based at both Roehampton and GOSH’s research partner the UCL Institute of Child Health, and now based at the University of Milan Bicocca, Italy.

The music study involved 37 paediatric patients at GOSH with cardiac and/or respiratory conditions, between the ages of seven days and four years old. Each child was involved in three 10-minute sessions – involving lullaby-singing, story-reading and a third ‘control’ session with no interaction – and their physiological responses and perceived pain levels were measured before and after each session.

The children’s heart rates and oxygen levels were measured with a non-invasive device called a Pulse Oximeter, and their pain level was measured on the CHEOPS scale (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Pain Scale), which is a well-known and trusted behavioural scale used to assess pain in young children. The CHEOPS scale includes six categories: crying, facial, child verbal, torso, touch and legs, and scoring ranges from 4 (no pain) to 13 (the worst pain).

After the lullaby session, the children’s average heart rate had reduced from 134.1 to 128.7 and their average CHEOPS pain rating had fallen from 6.21 to 5.64. In contrast, the story-reading and control sessions did not produce any similar changes in these measurements.

The lullabies sung to children in the study included those identified as particularly effective in previous research by Dr Pickett and Dr Longhi, including ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’,’ Hush Little Baby’, ‘Five Little Ducks’, ‘See Saw Marjorie Daw’ and ‘Hush a Bye Baby’.

Dr Pickett said live performance of a lullaby was likely to be more effective than a recorded version, adding: “Babies and young children respond to the singer’s voice first and instruments second – and more than one instrument can actually become quite confusing and less effective. Facial expressions and visual stimulation during the performance of a lullaby are just as important, and live performance allows the adult to adapt their singing depending on the child’s mood.

“Many of today’s well-known lullabies are at least 150-200 years old, but they are gradually evolving and improving as they are passed down from one generation to the next.”