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The power of lullabies

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top.


Whether you're a parent, child or former kid, it's likely you've heard that lullaby before. Or maybe you know this one.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Hush, little baby. Don't say a word. Momma's gonna buy you a mockingbird.

DEGGANS: Even magical fictional nannies rely on lullabies. Just ask Mary Poppins, heard here using a little bit of reverse psychology.


JULIE ANDREWS: (As Mary Poppins) Stay awake. Don't rest your head. Don't lie down upon your bed.

DEGGANS: Lullabies transcend language.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (Singing in non-English language).

DEGGANS: They've even made it all the way to Carnegie Hall in New York City. That's where the Lullaby Project takes the stage. Started in 2011, the project brings together parents and caregivers with professional artists to write and perform personal lullabies for their babies. This year's concert celebrating the project took place earlier today in New York and live-streamed on YouTube. Here was a lullaby from last year.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #5: (Singing) I love and cherish everything about you.

TIFFANY ORTIZ: We work with amazing, amazing musicians who are really sensitive people and who really know how to connect with parents and families, but who also are really flexible musicians and can let parents guide them through the process.

DEGGANS: Tiffany Ortiz is the director of Early Childhood Programs at Carnegie Hall. She says the project began with a focus not just on children, but on their parents.

ORTIZ: We had a partnership with a local hospital here in New York City, Jacoby Medical Center. The staff approached us and wondered, what role could music and songwriting play in supporting their patients, primarily their young parents? They're supporting their well-being, supporting that attachment between parent and child, particularly for parents who are experiencing high stress or those who are negatively impacted by social inequalities and injustices.

DEGGANS: Ortiz says about 200 to 300 parents participate annually in New York, with 800 to 900 parents involved globally each year. The experience, she says, is deeply personal for the parent.

ORTIZ: Often it begins with a letter to your baby, where a parent can express their hopes, their dreams, their wishes for their child. That gets transformed into the lyrics of the song. And then music is incorporated. And parents, just to say, are really involved in the entire process. They're leading this process. They're thinking about not just the messages that they want to share, but the language, the culture, the musics that they hope to share with their child. And so all of that gets really wrapped up in this beautiful gift of a song that they create personally for their child.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #6: (Singing) I trust you. You know what to do.

ORTIZ: My favorite thing is just how much love there is in the room. It's a very vulnerable and tender process. There's this real sense of shared community, shared love for the young ones in our lives, and the ability to do so in a creative, fun way through music making has been just an incredible experience. I mean, there's a lot of joy, but there's also a lot of sadness that sometimes gets wrapped up in these lullabies or journeys that families have experienced. And to find the threads of human connection through this process has been incredibly powerful.

DEGGANS: We think of lullabies as a sweet way of easing children into sleep, but the powers of a lullaby can go further to comfort, to heal, and to bring parents closer to their children, even under the most difficult circumstances. Carnegie Hall's Lullaby Project isn't the only one of its kind hoping to reach mothers in need. NPR's Elissa Nadworny discovered a similar program in South Carolina inside a women's prison.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When someone is pregnant and they're incarcerated, separation after they give birth is almost immediate. Many new mothers contend with emotional surges and anxieties during this time. But for those serving time, there's the additional formidable physical barrier. At a women's prison outside Columbia, S.C., a project is underway to help reconnect a few mothers with their children through the creation of lullabies.

ASHLEY: This is only a moment. Please don't forget me. Feel my arms around you. You are the best of me - Mama's world.

NADWORNY: That's Ashley. We're only using her first name here. She's incarcerated at the Graham Camille Griffin Correctional Institution, and she's taking part in the prison's pilot songwriting program, working with graduate students from the University of South Carolina School of Music.

ASHLEY: I was overjoyed. I was happy about being able to do this. But I have no, like, music training or anything, so it was a whole learning experience for me. But all I did was, you know, thought about my kids and then just started writing what I would say - what I would want to say to them.

NADWORNY: The women enrolled in the Lullaby Project are expecting mothers, along with some, like Ashley, who've recently delivered. The creative process in music doesn't always follow the timing of a gestational clock, so the song-making teams of graduate students, their professor and the women incarcerated in the South Carolina prison continue their work even after a woman has her baby.

ASHLEY: We wrote down the words and everything and we told them, hey, we want it like this. Like, I wanted mine kind of a Disney theme. But I just went off the songs that I - how I wanted it to sound. I was like, I wanted a little bit of "The Little Mermaid," "Part Of Your World" and then the song off of "Beauty And The Beast" when they dance together at, like, the end.

NADWORNY: Together, the grad students and the mothers chart out lyrics, workshop the melodies and collaborate on the layers of musicality needed to get the lullabies just right for a vocalist with the university.

CLAIRE BRYANT: All right, so Ashley has a chorus going here.

NADWORNY: Claire Bryant is a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Music.

BRYANT: Oh, "Mama's World."

ASHLEY: (Singing) This is only a moment. Please don't forget me. Feel my arms around you. You are the best of me - Mama's world.


BRYANT: Yes. That's so nice. We're getting there. All right.

As people out in the world, we maybe don't think about incarcerated mothers. We do not ask them about why they're there. That's not our business. That's not why we're there. We try to make them feel like just human beings making music.

NADWORNY: Bryant participated as a student when the Lullaby Project Initiative began over a decade ago, through the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall in New York City and, in 2022, worked to pilot the program at the Graham Camille Griffin Correctional Institution.

BRYANT: You know, incarcerated people will be coming back to our communities. They will be part of our society. They are part of our society. They are human beings. And who do we want coming back, and how do we want them to spend their incarceration?

NADWORNY: Ashley has five children, including her most recent. She says the hardest part of this is being away from them as she counts down the days till her parole or release. And she says the good graces of the students is not lost on those serving out their sentences.

ASHLEY: It's - yeah, they could be volunteering anywhere else, like an elementary or something. But they took their time to come to a prison. And even though we are here for crimes and we are sitting here being punished and everything, we're still human, and we still have families that care about us. And everybody makes mistakes, and we're here paying for our mistakes. So any mother out there that has kids, and they're your world, let them know it.

Gabe (ph) and Izzy (ph), y'all mean so much. Not enough words can describe how much. Y'all are Mama and Daddy's world. We will always be here for you through the ups and downs. You will never have to question how much you are loved. Please slow down. Don't grow up so fast. Y'all are our hearts - Mama and Daddy's world.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) This is only a moment. Please don't forget me. Feel my arms around you. You are the best of me. You are loved.

NADWORNY: That was the musical lullaby co-produced by Claire Bryant and her students at the University of South Carolina School of Music and co-written by Ashley, a mother of five, serving out her sentence at the Graham Camille Griffin Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C.


DEGGANS: The most common use of a lullaby we know is to help a child gently fall asleep. There's love in a lullaby spell, but is there something else going on too? NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin wanted to find out.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Pretty much every night, I turn on the sound machine...


SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...And climb up into my 8-year-old's top bunk to lie down with her.


Sometimes she wants to talk or just snuggle, but a lot of the time...

Do you want a song?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah - sleep, sleep, sleepyhead.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: OK. (Singing) Sleep, sleep...

This is a favorite lullaby from the music together class she took when she was younger. Just about 90 seconds later...


...Ninety seconds, and she is out. Honestly, when it works like this, it makes me feel like I have a superpower or I'm casting a spell. You will fall asleep. Listen to my voice. It does fill me with wonder, but it also makes me curious to understand what's happening and why. So I called Professor Tiffany Field of the medical school at the University of Miami.

TIFFANY FIELD: When you look at lullabies, they're all slow and rhythmical.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That can help calm children's thoughts, she says, so they can lull themselves to sleep. She did a study of toddlers and preschoolers taking naps in the university nursery. The teachers played classical music at the beginning of naptime.

FIELD: With the toddlers, there was a 35% faster sleep onset. With the preschoolers, there was a 19% faster sleep onset. So, of course, the teachers loved that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Many of the studies on this are done with preterm infants in the NICU, including one which compared infants who heard Mozart to infants who heard their mothers' lullabies plus a control group that didn't hear any music.

FIELD: And what they found was that the mothers' lullabies were more soothing to the infants. They slept better, but they also showed a lot of effects of decreased heart rate and respiration, better feeding, which probably explained why they had fewer days in the neonatal intensive care unit. And their mothers' anxiety was reduced.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Now, I love to sing, but that is not a requirement, says Field. You can sing badly, or if you really don't want to sing, a back rub can have similar effects. But there is just something about lullabies, says Sam Mehr of the University of Auckland, who directs the Music Lab. His team did a study where they played songs for infants in an unfamiliar language. Some of the songs were lullabies, and some weren't.

SAM MEHR: When they're listening to these lullabies, even though they're totally unfamiliar and, you know, not in the language the baby understands, they relax more. So there's something in, like, the kind of DNA of a lullaby that helps to calm infants.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He says in a lot of their research, they turn to lullabies because they're just everywhere all over the world. Hirut Kassaw (ph) is from Ethiopia and a mom of two, including a 1-year-old son. This is what she sings to him.

HIRUT KASSAW: (Singing in non-English language). That's the way they sleep.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says it works like magic for her, too.

DEGGANS: Selena Simmons-Duffin reporting on the magic and science of lullabies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.