Wayne State social work, music faculty explore power of lullabies to calm parents and babies


Researchers from Wayne State’s School of Social Work and Department of Music have received university funding to study lullabies as a form of parental coping.


Assistant Professor of Social Work Carolyn Dayton and Assistant Professor of Music Education Wendy Matthews were awarded $50,000 from the Division of Research’s Research Enhancement Program in the Arts & Humanities to examine whether violence-exposed parents at risk for insensitive parenting with their young infants can calm themselves and their babies by singing. The findings could potentially yield an easy, effective and affordable coping strategy for parents experiencing interpersonal or community violence, one with the added benefit of strengthening the development of the early parent-infant relationship and helping safeguard the socio-emotional development of the baby.


According to Dayton, who serves as associate director of the Infant Mental Health Program at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child and Family Development, violence and trauma can confer dysregulating effects on a person’s biology, psychology and behaviors, making it difficult for him or her to respond appropriately to an infant who is upset. During a two-year study, called “Singing to Babies in Motown!: The Detroit Lullaby Study,” Dayton and Matthews will examine whether parents in this situation can soothe both themselves and their babies by studying dozens of mothers and fathers with histories of poverty, trauma, depression and other stress as they sing to their babies. Specifically, they will observe the parents’ behavioral responses and measure the physiological responses (e.g., heart rate, breathing rate, skin conductance) of the parents and their babies.


If singing proves to be an effective coping strategy for violence-exposed parents, it could be a candidate for a high-impact public service campaign, Dayton said.


“The beauty of singing is that anyone can do it anywhere for free, so it can have the broadest application possible in terms of evidence-based interventions,” she said. Billboards and posters could promote the simple message of singing lullabies when stressed, she suggested, and the practice could be promoted by social workers, counselors, community health workers, and other professionals who work in vulnerable communities.


For additional information on research in the School of Social Work visit the Center for Social Work Research website.

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