Bounced Babies: They Got Rhythm

The federal government in 2006 took the first step toward listing the polar bear as a threatened species. (AP)
How do babies get rhythm? Bounce them while you sing.

Movement plays an important role in helping wire babies' brains to hear rhythm, according to research that tested moms and babies dancing to different beats.

Parents everywhere sing to their infants, using a distinctive high pitch that's soothingly slow for a lullaby and elaborately bright at playtime. Babies catch on quickly, able to perceive aspects of melody and recognize different beats at just a few months of age.

As Canadian psychologist Laurel Trainor studied how babies perceived music, she noticed that parents hardly ever sang to them without bouncing or rocking or playing with their feet. She wondered whether that movement was important developmentally.

Her research shows it is, that an interaction of movement and hearing helps the brain learn about rhythm, Trainor reports in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

"It's wiring the sensory system," the McMaster University researcher said. "That early experience that parents do naturally is probably really important for learning down the road."

It's an early step toward learning to make music, or at least to really appreciate it, said infant development specialist David Lewkowicz, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University.

"It's a very clever kind of study," said Lewkowicz, whose own research also shows that stimulating multiple senses is important for brain development. "When babies are learning about their world, we should never lose sight of the fact that they are learning in a ... multi-sensory context."

Trainor and colleague Jessica Phillips-Silver tested 16 healthy 7-month-olds by having them listen to music made by a snare drum and sticks that had an ambiguous rhythm — no accented beats. Mothers bounced half the infants on every second beat, in a march-like rhythm, and half on every third beat, in a waltz-like rhythm.

Then the researchers played the music again, this time with the beats accented in either the march or waltz pattern.