Babies are kinder after you dance with them

Music can cement social bonds, making babies more likely to help someone after they’ve grooved to a song, a new study finds. 

Laura Cirelli/YouTube

When Baby V was just weeks old and upset, her dad and I would sometimes swaddle her into a burrito and bounce her to the beat of Justin Timberlake’s Mirrors. Our belief that this particular song soothed her was more superstitious than scientific. But when faced with a tiny red-faced screamer, we didn’t have many options.

The particular rhythm of that song seemed to calm her (either that or the fact that the album version of the song is extremely long). Like many parents, we learned early on that certain music can have a powerful effect on babies.

Scientists have been studying just how babies respond to music for a long time, as my colleague Bruce Bower pointed out in his feature story on how music can connect parents and babies. (Bonus: If you want to see a baby dressed up as a symphony conductor, check out the cover for that issue of Science News.)

Babies clamor for melodies long before they can speak. And now, a new study finds that music can help forge new social relationships. Babies who groove to a beat with an adult are more willing to lend a helping hand. Fourteen-month-olds who were bounced to the same beat as the one an adult was jamming to were more likely to retrieve an object dropped accidentally-on-purpose by that adult than babies bounced to a different beat, scientists report June 12 in Developmental Science.

The jam in question was The Beatles’ Twist and Shout. While being bounced by a helper in a front carrier, a baby watched an experimenter bounce too, to either the same beat or a different one. Afterwards, the babies were surreptitiously tested when the experimenter dropped a clothespin or markers, or needed help reaching a paper ball. (A video by the researchers shows the setup, with a helpful toddler toddling over to pick up a dropped clothespin.)

When the baby and experimenter had grooved together, the babies were more likely to lend a hand, researchers found. A single song, it seemed, gave these babies simpatico feelings toward their fellow dancer.

This study and others like it are interesting, for sure, but they’re really just confirming what parents—and everyone, for that matter — already know. Music is powerful in its ability to delight, transport and bond. And babies know this too. 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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