Here's the last thing I want to hear about as I'm falling asleep: A baby, alone in a treetop, ready to fall over and sustain horrible injuries and/or die, if not from the fall, then from the wolves that will likely come eat it. That's fucked up, so why do parents continue singing this shit at tiny babies? Turns out there's a pretty good reason.
PBS has published a fascinating article on the nature of lullabies and why they're so incredibly dark and fucked up to the point that they may be scarring. It's because (first of all) a baby can't understand what you're singing, it's just listening to the rhythm and cadence of your voice, and it's finding it soothing. So you could literally be singing Ben Folds' version of "Bitches Ain't Shit" to your little one and they will love it because it's all about how sweetly that shit is sung. Good to know! When I have a baby, it's going to be Khia's "My Neck, My back" every night. (Also, this totally validates the time I was almost kicked out of an amusement park because I referred to the ferris wheel as the "spinning wheel of death" and the mom behind me was all "dude, there's a three-month-old here" and I responded with "Your baby doesn't know what the fuck I'm saying, yo" and she was unhappy.) (If you're reading this, lady who went to Bonfante Gardens on June 15th 2008, I WAS RIGHT. IN YOUR FACE.)
Now, if you thought soothing was all that the lullaby was doing, then you would be very wrong. It turns out that no matter what you're singing ("Hush Little Baby" or "Straight Out of Compton"), slowing it down can help lower infant heart rate, improve suckling behavior and help the baby fall asleep. According to a 2013 study, singing lullabies live can also increase bonding behavior and provide stress relief for both parties involved. And that's exactly why so many lullabies might be dark.
According to ethnomusicologist Andrew Pettit and Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, lullabies are meant to be a safe way for parents to express fears and anxieties they might have about the safety of their child.
"People have said that lullabies are the space to sing the unsung," Pettit said. "A place to say the unsayable. You're alone. Nobody is listening, and you can express the feelings that are not okay to express in society."
"There is a special physical bond between mother and child in the first year of life, in which mothers feel they can sing to their child about their own fears and anxieties, but in the safety and comfort of physical togetherness," Blythe said.
And lullabies like "Rock-a-Bye, Baby" may actually be referencing a fear of crib death, according to Joanne Loewy, director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine. Since the first few years of a baby's life are fraught with danger, it makes sense that parents might soothe themselves by singing out their worst fears in extreme and unlikely scenarios. (My worst fear for a child: Drowning in the lazy river at a water park. What would that song look like?)
But the dark lullabies could also just be about the sadness of leaving one's baby to sleep and the loneliness of the postpartum mother. The bough breaking in the treetops is just a bedroom door closing, according to folk artist and researcher Bess Lomax Hawes.
"I always found myself that rocking a baby to sleep was kind of a sad thing to do," she wrote. "Not miserable or tragic or irksome — just a little bit sad, somehow."
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