A lullaby is as ancient as the hills. It connects a mother to the child, much like an umbilical cord, nurturing both. It brings about “an exchange of souls” as suggested by Bayartai Genden, a propounder of the lullaby. Although called a cradle song since its start, it may prove helpful even in serious adult illnesses and in hospice as discovered by modern scientists. Upon first hearing the sound of the mother, the baby gets hooked on to her. But when does the baby even start hearing? That is a fascinating story to unravel.
Embryological Roots of Hearing
At about 18 weeks of life in the womb, the baby perceives the first sound of the beating of her mom’s heart, her breathing sounds, her intestinal gurgling, and the stream of blood passing through her umbilical cord. No wonder the baby, later on, enjoys the sound of a stream or river, which is her deja vu experience! In the third trimester of pregnancy, the baby specifically recognizes her mother’s voice as evidenced by her heart rate increasing when the mother is talking outside. The baby, however, has to hear her mom’s voice through a fluid medium and has to develop a correlation upon her birth that she heard the same voice then and now!
A Lullaby Is More Than Just a Tune For a Baby
Scientific experiments show that the baby prefers hearing her mother’s own voice singing a lullaby rather than somebody else’s. The baby also prefers the subject matter of the lullaby to be infant-directed rather than non-infant-directed! Thus starts the story of “me and mine!” The topic of the lullaby may inevitably get modified as the mother employs it to express her fears, hopes, and prayers.
I learned in my school a lullaby attributed to Shivaji’s mother, Jijibai, who prepared her son to wage and win a war when he grew up. “Sleep now, but fight later,” she sang. This correlates well with the story of Abhimanyu in Mahabharat wherein he learns the art of war while in the uterus.
An Obstetrical Clinic in California teaches pregnant mothers to talk to their baby in the womb. I also learned a lullaby sung by the mother of a child laborer in the textile industry. She lamented waking up her child from a deep sleep of early morning to report to his daily hard work. A Syrian mother changed her soothing lullaby to a fear-stricken one when she was forced to migrate to Turkey to escape the brutal conditions in Syria. Highly toxic polluted air in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia prompted a mother to shift her children to safer surroundings and sing a nostalgic song about how her beautiful country had so drastically deteriorated!
Thus a lullaby may often unfold an ongoing tale of changing conditions.
Lullabies: A Universal Blanket Covering the Vast Universe
Hannah Reyes Morales, from the Philippines, deserves special credit for reawakening our interest in the lullaby. She has reviewed the world history of the lullaby in National Geographic (December 2020) with accompanying eloquent pictures related to the subject. In fact, there is no part of human culture or province that the lullaby has left untouched. It is ancient but alive and needs to be nurtured to be kept alive. Every country from A to “Z”, so to speak, has its own synonym for a lullaby, the core remaining unchanged.
The French call it Berceuse, the Western musicians Lullaments, while a multilingual country like India has many names for it. It is called Lori in Hindi, Jola in Telugu, Thalattu in Tamil, Nanabaya in Odia, Angai Geet in Maharashtrian, Halardu in Gujarati, Ghum-Parani-Gaan in Bangladeshi. Some of our Christmas carols like “Silent Night, Holy Night” could have been a lullaby to baby Jesus. Dating even further back, a Babylonian lullaby about 4000 years old was found inscribed on a clay tablet.
Our Rich Heritage of Hindi Loris
Undoubtedly, there has been an inadequate exploration of the rich treasure of lullabies in multilingual Indian literature and folk songs. Loris of Indian film songs have a significant contribution to that wealth. They have expressed love, pathos, social adversities, abounding hopes, depressing despairs, panoramic nature, spiritual insightfulness, and a vast gamut of a mother’s powerfully emotional feelings. I was disappointed to see that an exhaustive article on the subject as in National Geographic did not make any mention of Indian lullabies. It also is noteworthy that some of the most outstanding lullabies have been written by men, who often distance themselves from the babies in our society. Yes, men too, can connect to this chorus at home and around. I remember many lullabies that my father sang before I slept.
Modus Operandi of a Lullaby
It is marvelous, mysterious, and miraculous! The baby gets reassured, the mother relieved, and both of them feel ready to sleep at its end. As proposed by Freud, the baby is not afraid of the dark but has isolation fear, while the mother herself also needs some privacy with the baby. As the baby wants to be lulled to sleep (that is why it is called lullaby), the mother also wants to feel the fulfillment of her maternal connection. It is therefore not uncommon to see a mother falling asleep even before the baby. A lullaby supports the spirit, psychology, and resilience in adversity, all of which have a therapeutic value. It is simple, repetitive, rhythmic, and soothing. A father or a sibling can subsequently substitute for the mother, thus widening the base of the bond. A joint presence of both parents at the sleeping time of the baby generates reassuring accountability and dependability in both parents. The baby needs this support to be self-supporting later in life.
Modern Science Extends Applications of the Lullaby Beyond Babies and in Covid-19
Based on the concept that a lullaby has a therapeutic value before sleep, it has been also applied in hospice patients as well as in premature or sick children. Childhood and old age are often placed on comparable rungs of the same ladder of life so a lullaby can bring extra comfort to both, from a state of wakefulness to drowsiness and even death as in hospice patients.
Laura Cirreli, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Toronto who studies the Science of Maternal Song, has reported a decreased level of stress in both mother and baby induced by warm gentle rocking. There is also a lullaby project conducted by Carnegie Hall in New York City. Samuel Mehr, Director of Harvard University’s Music Lab, asked 29,000 participants to listen to 118 variegated songs to evaluate their healing power. “Statistically, people are most consistent in identifying lullabies,” he said.
During the isolation of children from working mothers as in the covid-19 period, mothers sang their lullabies from hospitals and working stations using zoom to comfort their children sleeping at home. What a wonderful use of technology to transmit continuing love and care to the young ones!
Going back to our own country India, Jagdish Chandra Bose (1858-23) proved the comforting effect of music even on plants. Amar Bose (1929-13), who fathered the wireless passage of sound, substantiates that a lullaby functions exactly on the same principle! The sound of music is ever so sound. We better keep our lullabies awake.
Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a priest, poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada, and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at email@example.com.