Most parents are understandably skeptical about using any medication to relieve their child’s pain so they’re always on the lookout for alternative methods. A research team from the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London analyzed the effect of popular lullabies on a child’s pain perception, heart rate, and anxiety.

“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,” explained Dr. Nick Pickett, music specialist at GOSH. “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.”

Dr. Pickett and his colleagues recruited 37 patients at GOSH between the age of 7 days and 4 years old who suffer from a heart or respiratory condition. Participants either listened to 10 minutes of a lullaby, 10 minutes of story reading, or 10 minutes of no interaction. The children listened to five popular lullabies including “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Hush Little Baby,” “Five Little Ducks,” “See Saw Marjorie Daw,” and “Hush a Bye Baby.”

Researchers used a pulse oximeter to test the children's heart rate and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Pain Scale (CHEOPS) to gauge their perception of pain. Children who were exposed to 10 minutes of a lullaby reduced their heart rate, on average, from 134.1 to 128.7. CHEOPS pain ratings also dropped from 6.21 to 5.64.

On the other hand, pop-up pictures and stories that were read to the children had little to no effect on heart rate or the amount pain they felt. The research team also indicated that live music utilizing a single instrument was more effective compared to prerecorded music.

“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,” said Dr. Pickett. “There is something inherently special about music and singing to a child that achieves these results.”

Parents should avoid giving a child under the age of 3 months any type of pain medication without contacting their pediatrician first. Ibuprofen should also be avoided by children under 6 months, considering its effect on infants has not been studied as of yet.

“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,” Dr. Pickett added. “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.”

Source: Longhi E, Pickett N, Hargreaves D. Wellbeing and hospitalized children: Can music help? Psychology of Music. 2013.