Movement, Rhythm, and Baby Brain Development

Sun, 06/26/2011 - 10:28am -- Jessica Baudin-...

Movement in Nature

Rhythmic movement is a part of nature.  A very primitive process, many creatures with limited brain function, like jellyfish, move rhythmically showing us that rhythmic movement evolved prior to music.  However, it is the ability to respond rhythmically to an auditory stimulus (a sound) that is much more rare. In fact other then humans, the only other animals that respond to music and consistently keep the beat are seals, elephants, and cockatoos! Snowball the Cockatoo could give the Dancing Gorilla a run for his money.

Babies are born with Rhythm!

Not only are humans rare in their ability to respond to rhythm, they develop this ability at a very young age. At 2 month infants can discriminate rhythmic patterns (Demany, McKenzie, and Vurpillot, 1997). So even if you can't hear the difference a Salsa (quick, quick, slow) and Cha cha (slow, slow, quick, quick, quick) your baby can! Your baby will also learn the metrical patterns (think of the difference between a march and a waltz) of his culture between 6-12 months.

While your baby's brain is flexible enough to make connections needed to hear a variety of rhythmic and metrical patterns, he will quickly learn to only show preference to the patterns that they are most exposed to. Not only will your baby show preference to these rhythms, but the section of the brain responsible for auditory perception will be less responsive to novel rhythms and metrical patterns.(Phillips-Silver and Trainor 2005).  This part of the brain is also responsible for the synchronization of movements, so the more responsive it is to sound the greater the ability to adapt to different rhythmic movements.

It's All About the Vestibular System

How does your baby's brain differentiate rhythmic patterns if she can't yet waltz, cha cha, march, or salsa on her own? Through passive movement, i.e. YOU!  Researchers at McMaster University have discovered that while movement is crucial to develop rhythm the only part of the body that needs to move is the head, or more specifically the vestibular system. The vestibular system, located in the inner ear, is responsible for balance and spacial orientation. It is the first sense experienced in the womb and continues to develop after birth. 

From birth your baby is traveling through the world with you as her vessel. Even while you walk your baby is learning about rhythm, as cross-culturally humans generally move at a pace of around 120BPM (beats per minute). Rocking, swaying, bouncing, and dancing all contribute to developing your baby's vestibular system and her movement and auditory system. When you move to music  with your baby different areas of her brain are activated and synchronized at the same time, meaning her brain is functioning at a higher level! Movement and music used together foster brain development and improve executive functioning (attention, memory, inhibition). 

Dance Daily!

So now that we know how important movement, music, and rhythm are to your baby's brain development here are some ideas to get moving!

  • Dance with your baby daily, from the time they are born! Wear him in a baby carrier and sway, bounce, and boogie! You and your baby will also benefit from skin to skin time. 
  • Listen to a wide variety of music. Invest in some world music so your baby is exposed to rhythmic and metrical patterns outside your cultural context. 
  • Join a baby music/dance program! Studies have shown that babies who participate in group music and movement activities have increased socio-emotional development. 
  • Play with shakers or scarves. When your baby is old enough give her shakers or scarves to hold while bouncing or swaying to music. Not only will she benefit from the movement to the music but these props will encourage her to move to the beat herself! 
  • Try this knee bounce rhyme:

Pace Goes the lady, the lady, the lady!  (slow knee bounces holding baby's hands) 

Pace Goes the lady!

Whoa! (tilt baby backwards) 

Canter goes the gentleman, the gentleman, the gentleman! (slightly faster knee bounces) 

Canter goes the gentleman! 

Whoa! (tilt baby backwards) 

Gallop goes the horseman, the horseman, the horseman! (faster knee bounces) 

Gallop goes the horseman!

 And falls into a ditch! (tilt baby all the way back to laying down)

  • And just for fun, be inspired by this Samba baby ;)