Proceedings abstract



Sandra E. Trehub and Takayuki Nakata

Department of Psychology

University of Toronto at Mississauga

Mississauga, Ontario L5L 1C6


Background: In recent years there has been increasing interest in mothers\rquote vocal behaviour with prelinguistic infants. Not only do mothers talk to their non-comprehending infants; they sing to them as well. The apparent parallels between maternal speech and song to prelinguistic infants may stem from the principal goals of such interactions, which are related to modulation of infant arousal and attention.


Aim: This paper distinguishes between the broad parallels that have been made across investigations of maternal speech and singing and those that are emerging from direct comparisons of speech and singing within the same mother-infant dyads.

Main contribution: Some of the reported parallels between maternal speech and singing break down on closer inspection. Nevertheless, the differences shed light on the nature and function of such vocal interactions. For example, the style of maternal singing is relatively stable over considerably longer periods than is that of maternal speech. Moreover, the two types of vocal interaction have distinct consequences for infant attention. When infants watch and listen to their mothers sing, they seem to be mesmerised, as reflected in prolonged gaze at mother and relative passivity. By contrast, episodes of maternal speech lead to intermittent looking at mother but to greater vocal and gestural responsiveness.

Implications: Maternal speech and singing each serve important but complementary caretaking functions. Singing is considerably more effective in alleviating infant distress and prolonging infant contentment. There are suggestions, however, that patterns of intermittent attention are associated with enhanced learning in infancy compared to sustained attention. Thus maternal singing may promote emotional goals while speech promotes informational goals, even in the prelinguistic period.


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