Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The role of lullabies in mother-baby attachment

Özge Suzan
Nursan Çinar
Sakarya, Turkey

Lullaby by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. 1875. From Bartoli, Damien & Ross, Frederick C. William Bouguereau: His Life and Works. Via Wikimedia.

A lullaby is defined as a sweet, gentle song that is sung to entice a baby to sleep. In Turkish folklore, a mother’s voice is very important for her baby. An example of this can be found in the following text:

“Uyusun da büyüsün, ninni, tıpış tıpış yürüsün, Ninni”
“Grow up in your sleep little baby, Lullaby! Walk right away, Lullaby!”

Lullaby is another name for Inanna, the most important goddess of the Sumerians, although some Western researchers claim that the goddess Inanna and the goddess Lullaby were separate personalities. There is also a school of thought that the goddess Inanna descended from “Nin-Ana,” or Sky-Mother. The sister of the Sumerian sun god Utu, Inanna (Ninanna) is also the goddess of love. It is believed that she taught the Sumerians sympathy and love1 and her most important symbol is a star. Because she was believed to be the queen of heaven, she is the first star to shine in the morning and evening.

Because the goddess Inanna represented the divine power that helps bond a mother and her baby before birth, pregnant women would compose lullabies for the babies in their wombs and ask Inanna to love and protect them. Today we know that brain development begins in utero and that an unborn baby begins to perceive sounds coming from outside.2 It is not a coincidence that lullabies often include melodies in higher tones, which babies hear more clearly. Singing a lullaby is also an emotional attachment experience for both mother and child.

When we fall asleep, we exist simultaneously in two realms: the physical world and the world of dreams. The state of sleep, according to Heraclitus, is an intermediate region between life and death. In this region, a person is both sensitive and vulnerable.3 When a mother sings a lullaby, she creates a mystical bond between herself and her child. Although it is thought that lullabies have the function of putting babies into the restful and passive state of sleep, they are actually an experience of integration between a baby and mother. Their breathing synchronizes and there is an air of warmth, calm, and openness between them. Perhaps this is a lullaby’s greatest power.

The singing of lullabies to infants is common4 and is rooted in ancient oral traditions. Modern science confirms that the human brain has highly selective and specific cortical regions for the perception and processing of the human voice.5 In some folk cultures, such as the Khanty culture, lullabies are considered sacred and are individually composed for each baby. A Khanty mother composes her own lullabies and sings them to her baby alone. In Turkish culture, lullabies are learned from mothers and grandmothers. The words, melodies, and emotions are passed from generation to generation. Lullabies remind adults of their own past; they inherit them and pass them on. Lullabies are carried beyond borders and new ones are made along the way. With these lullabies, we express our greatest fears, hopes, and prayers for our children. Lullabies are love songs passed through generations. Their verbal and musical codes retain the color of a particular culture, but the bond that is represented is universal.

Babylonian and Assyrian lullabies from the first century BC say that babies’ tears disrupt the divine order.4 While the primary and concrete function of the lullaby is to calm and put a baby to sleep, it also leads to an effective interaction between mother and baby. The phonosemantic coloring of the words of lullabies promotes harmony, unity, and closeness between mother and child. Research shows that in babies who are separated from their mothers, a recording of a lullaby sung by the mother helps to relax the infant, normalize body temperature, and shorten crying time.6

Parents have been singing lullabies to their children for thousands of years. While we knew anecdotally that lullabies could help, we now have tangible evidence of health benefits. A lullaby combines the cohesive and socializing function of music with the ability to regulate effect and arousal, which contributes to a natural, simple, and economical approach to familial attachment and bonding.


  1. Gelb, J. (1960). The name of the goddess Innin. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 19(2), 72-79.
  2. Karabulatova, I. (2017), Ирина Карабулатова. Магия детства. Колыбельные и заговоры народов Тюменской области (ikz.ru) (8.09.2021tarihinde ziyaret edildi).
  3. Osmanoğlu, Ö. (2017). Aristotle’s Theory of Dreams and the Translation of “On Dreams”. UskUdar University Journal of Social Sciences, (4), 139-173.
  4. Trehub, SE., Trainor, L. (1998). Singing to Infants: Lullabies and Play. In Rovee-Collier, C., Lipsitt, L. P. & Hayne H. (Eds.) Advances in Infancy Research: Vol. 12 (pp. 43-77). Standford, CT: Ablex Publishing.
  5. Bélin, P., Zatorre, R. J., Lafaille, P., Ahad, P., & Pike, B. (2000). Voiceselective Areas in Human Auditory Cortex. Nature, 403, 309-312.
  6. Standley, JM., Moore, R. (1995). Therapeutic effects of music and mother’s voice on premature infants. Pediatr Nurs 21, 509–512.

ÖZGE KARAKAYA SUZAN works as a Research Assistant at Sakarya University School of Health Sciences. Her research interests include nursing, maternal, newborn, and child health.

NURSAN ÇINAR, PhD, is a professor at Sakarya University School of Health Sciences. Her research focuses on pediatric nursing, health promotion, breastfeeding, nurse education, environmental risk, and health affect.

Summer 2021



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