Occupational Therapist with 'Sing Into Life' and Mum Michelle Driscoll advises parents how to use music in everyday life to help their children overcome challenges.
The power of music
Music is an immensely powerful medium. Hearing just one line or bar from a piece of music can transport us to a place or time in our past. It forms an integral part of our being with our heartbeat and breathing creating a constant rhythmic pattern that keeps us alive. The steady beat is what all expectant parents listen for at their first ultrasound and subsequent check ups to know that everything is as it should be with their little one.
Babies can hear and perceive music from a very young age whist still in the womb, as young as 26 weeks. Not only that, but babies learn to respond to music whilst still in the womb with changes noted in their heart rate and movement to different music. While studies suggest that classical music continues to be a favourite, whatever is a favourite of yours will be a favourite of your baby’s. My husband never realised why he loved Elvis so much growing up and later found out that his mother listened to him constantly during her pregnancy. There is also some research which suggests that exposing babies to music while still in the womb has a later effect on their skill development including motor skills, cognitive (thinking/problem solving skills), perceptual (sensory) skills and linguistics (start of language). While not all would agree that music alone is responsible for such development, the majority of research shows that early stimulation following birth and continued multi-sensory experiences at the level and pace that your baby can handle helps to maintain brain structures and develop the neural connections to give your baby the best start in life. Going at your child's pace is key as overstimulation can lead to your child having difficulty processing the information and can affect their emotional state. On the flipside, research has also shown the detrimental effects that lack of stimulation or neglect of babies and toddlers can have, including the irreversible effects on their brain development due to the pruning that takes place if the brain is not being used as it should in the first few years of life. Early involvement in music is also directly linked to developing abstract reasoning and other cognitive skills (spatial and temporal reasoning), which will help with laying the foundation for studies in later life such as mathematics and science.
Music is good not just for our children. Not only does it aid the early development of our babies, it also helps to keep us mums relaxed whether during pregnancy, during the birth or as a mum. Music is a great distraction during birth and I personally found humming and chanting to be more effective in managing my contractions than using the gas!
Using music for specific challenges
Music Therapy is the use of music to achieve therapeutic goals and promote health and well being. While it may be a newer and lesser known health profession, it is proving to have valuable results. And this is probably due to the fact that music is so engaging and motivating to nearly every person, regardless of musical talent or ability. Music Therapy works in a vast array of areas including elderly care, mental health, trauma, end of life care and extensively with children. You can find Music Therapists working in a neonatal unit, cancer care, with children with Autism or other developmental issues, with children dealing with loss or trauma or children with behavioural difficulties. Music can be used to help develop a number of skills including gross and fine motor skills, vocal, speech and listening skills, social skills (like sharing and turn taking), cognitive (thinking) skills, emotional expression and self esteem. It can also be used for relaxation, pain or stress management, motivation and independence.
But you don’t have to be a Music Therapist to use music to reach a goal or outcome. Speech Pathologists frequently use music to help with language and speech development and to promote communication and interaction; teachers use music to enhance learning and creativity; and there are scores of early childhood music programmes that use music to support development of a number of skills. But parents also use music for a variety of reasons. Mums will often find themselves singing through their day and parents of new babies will sing anything to get their bundle of joy off to sleep, at times probably using some choice words in the lullabies. While I’m sure a lot of you readers are already using many of these techniques, here are a few examples of how you can use this great tool to help your kids in a variety of ways.
The benefits of music and how parents can use music in everyday life
Music can be a powerful ally to new parents. Playing womb sounds when a baby is first born helps create familiarity and can assist in their transition to the world. We played them constantly when our son was first born. He also seem to calm instantly to familiar songs that he had heard when he was in the womb with traditional Irish music being a favourite as his Dad would play them. Music used in this way can help promote relaxation and settling. We all have our favourite lullabies that help to drift our little ones off to sleep, regardless of their age.
As well as helping with settling, music can also help with emotional regulation. We know this as adults as we can use whatever music we like to help cheer us up or to add fuel to our emotional crises. Music making can help to relieve tension and provide an outlet for whatever emotional state a person is feeling without needing words. Music can also act as a diffuser for a temper tantrum or for a bad moment during a child or adult’s day. Children often have a key song, one that when it is sung helps to stop whatever moment they may be having. A child’s key song can stay the same or can change over time. It’s up to us parents to find the key!
Music helps to promote connection and relationship and playing music with your child may create a special time between the two of you. When you sing to your little one, they stop to look at and listen to you, and in time, will sing along with you. Playing music in a wider group, like an early childhood music programme or a choir promotes co-operation and social connectedness. Playing for Change is an organisation that knows the power of music. Whilst traveling, a group of documentary filmmakers saw that while remote communities may have limited resources, they had a great strength of spirit and contentment and a strong social connection and music was the common denominator. They now use music not only to promote the development of the children who participate in the programmes but also to promote positive social change and connect the world. They have programmes running in various countries in Asia and Africa. September 21st is their annual event day with events being held around the globe using the universal language of music.
Music is the starting point for developing language. Singing nursery rhymes to children helps them learn that there is a structure to language. As they begin to sing along, it helps to develop their speech and articulation. It also helps to promote their pre-literacy skills as they become aware of sounds and rhyming words. Songs such as ‘Round and round the garden’ and ‘This little piggy’ create anticipation and work by eliciting a response through cause and effect. Playing and singing songs also helps to develop listening skills, attention, focus and discipline especially if it involves playing with others. Music can also be used to help a person regain their speech if they have lost it due to a stroke or brain injury. US Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford was unable to speak following her gunshot wound to the head. Part of her rehabilitation included Music Therapy and using familiar songs, she was able to sing long before she was able to talk again.
Playing an instrument or doing the movements to action songs helps to develop a child’s motor skills, both fine motor (using their hands in a controlled way) and gross motor (big movement skills) such as balance, co-ordination, bilateral integration (using the two sides of the body in a co-ordinated way), body awareness, sequencing and timing. And it’s never too young to start. Our six month old was able to hold a drumstick and drum without any encouragement. Action songs and dancing are also a great way to release some of the excess energy that toddlers always seem to have.
Music can be used to develop everyday life skills and independence. It is commonly used to help promote routine at bedtime by singing a bedtime song, but it can also be used throughout your child’s day to promote routine. For example a clean up song, a song to get ready for dinner or for bed. These songs not only help to prepare the child for the transition, they can help them learn the steps of the task if these are sung during the song, thus increasing their independence. Some children find certain tasks and situations challenging and music can help to prepare them for the event or talk them through the steps such as washing their hair and getting it cut or going to school. If you feel your creativity waning, ‘Sing Into Life’ may help. They are a series of social story books for children to help them prepare for and engage in certain tasks that they may find challenging such as going to school, getting ready for school, going to the dentist or going on a plane. They use music to help the children through each step and are so catchy that you will find yourself singing along in no time.
Music can also be used for older children as an aide for learning. It can help them remember facts for an exam if they make up a song that contains the information. Sometimes playing certain music while studying can help to improve focus and if the student remembers the song during an exam, it can be used to help them remember and retrieve the information they were studying at the time.
Music also helps to develop creativity, self expression and self esteem; all skills that seem to be declining in this technological age. When a person unleashes their creative side, it enables self-discovery, boosts their sense of worth and empowers them. Learning to play music also provides the opportunity to make mistakes as new songs are leant and helps to develop a child’s perseverance as they practice to master a piece.
For many, the fun of music making is enough to get involved. The skills developed are often a bonus. We all find ourselves using music for many different reasons and know that it works. From a sensory processing perspective, music is multi-sensory, providing stimulation to the brain via a number of channels and is processed in a number of different areas in the brain. That is why its benefits are so far reaching. So if music is a big part of your day, keep it up! If not, maybe it’s time to get musical. There has been research done in tribal communities that suggests that adults who were good at music, were more attractive to the opposite sex. My husband is a muso and so in part, I have to agree with that. And if that is important to you, it might possibly be another good reason to get you or your child involved.