This story appears in the December 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine. The nonprofit National Geographic Society helped fund this article.
The song comes alive as night draws in. Hear it curl beneath the blanket, slip between the fold of cradling arms, in rooms across the world. To an audience of children, a hidden chorus of caregivers fills the night with song. They’re singing lullabies.
For Khadija al Mohammad, nighttime has always been the time for silence, comfort, and quieting the noises of the day. When her eldest son, Muhammed, was born 19 years ago, a decade before the Syrian civil war, she sang sweet lullabies—songs passed down by her mother and grandmother, songs of heritage and place.
As the conflict escalated, her family left their home in Kafr Nubl in 2013 and made a reluctant crossing to Turkey, where her youngest child, Ahmad, three, was born.
Khadija’s lullabies have changed with her journey. A schoolteacher and mother of five, she is among 12 million displaced from Syria since 2011, the result of a conflict that has killed probably more than a half million people.
Khadija, now a Turkish citizen, is like many mothers around the world, nurturing children and soothing them with lullabies in environments fraught with hazards. Sung in our most intimate spaces as our days come to a close, these songs hold far more than their function. As situations change, lullabies help to establish safe spaces for children. Today, amid sweeping changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, lullabies endure as an especially important way to preserve tender moments between parents and their young children. (Read about bedtime rituals during a pandemic.)
Sung across cultures, lullabies echo the histories of those who sing them. Khadija’s lullabies became songs about the war. “My children knew about my feelings,” she muses. From their tent in a resettlement camp to their home in an apartment in Şanlıurfa, nightmares have followed Khadija. She dreams of helicopters and of the Syrian army following her, and she wakes up worrying about her children. They huddle around her when they see her in tears. By a mattress on the floor, she gently lays Ahmad down on her legs, rocks him slowly, and sings.
“Ohh aircraft, fly in the sky and do not strike the children in the street. Be tender and kind to these children.”
A Babylonian lullaby that’s about 4,000 years old was found inscribed on a clay tablet. By the glow of a phone or to the thrum of a city, lullabies still charm babies to sleep today. We inherit them, and we pass them on. We carry lullabies across borders and make new ones along the way. They contain the traces of those who came before us, and they will carry traces of us long after we’re gone. Within these songs we’ve expressed not just our greatest fears, but in the same breath, our hopes and prayers. They are likely to be the first love songs children hear.
Like many lullabies around the world, Khadija’s song is a response to the pressures of the day. And although lullabies sound soothing and reassuring, their lyrics often are dark and far from comforting—they’re a window into our fears. The Icelandic lullaby “Bíum, Bíum, Bambaló” is haunted by a face at the window. The Russian “Bayu Bayushki Bayu” warns to stay away from the edge of the bed or a little gray wolf will drag a baby into the woods and under a willow bush.
As lullabies hold our fears about a world that’s often unforgiving and cruel, these songs don’t always shield us from it. “Rock-a-Bye, Baby,” one of the most well-known English-language lullabies, is after all a song about a cradle falling from a treetop, baby and all.
But lesser known are the lyrics of a modern, longer version. “Rock a bye baby / do not you fear / Never mind baby / Mother is near” begins the last stanza. Lullabies reveal our fears, but perhaps more importantly, they are a reflection of our reassurances. “Now sound asleep / until morning light,” it concludes.
In Japan the “Itsuki no Komoriuta,” or “Lullabies of Itsuki,” are the songs of young girls who were sent to work as live-in nannies for wealthier families in the village of Itsuki during the century before WWII. “Nobody will shed tears when I die. Only cicadas on the persimmon tree will cry” are lyrics from a well-known Itsuki lullaby.
A few years ago, in the Philippines, I sang a lullaby for the first time to my stepson, who was four years old at the time. The apartment my husband and I had moved into in Manila’s business district was new to him and a wearisome boat ride away from his mother and his home by the seaside on the island of Mindoro. He was frightened when the lights went out. As he started crying, I was sure I was doing everything terribly wrong, denting a relationship that is precious and delicate to me. In panic, I carried him and began to sing “You Are My Sunshine.” On that warm summer night he fell asleep, his tears drying to the hum of the fan. But whose fears had I been assuaging?
There is a growing body of research about how lullabies help soothe both caregiver and child. Laura Cirelli, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Toronto, studies the science of maternal song. She found that when mothers sang lullabies, stress levels dropped not just for the baby but for mothers as well. In her most recent work, she found that familiar songs soothed babies the most—more than speaking or hearing unfamiliar songs.
A new mother herself, Cirelli sees singing lullabies as a “multimodal experience” shared by mother and child. “It’s not just about the baby hearing music,” she says. “It’s about being held by the mom, having her face very close, and feeling her warm, gentle rocking.”
From culture to culture, lullabies “tend to have collections of features that make them soothing or calming,” says Samuel Mehr, director of Harvard University’s Music Lab, which studies how music works and why it exists. The lab’s project, the Natural History of Song, found that people can hear universal traits in music—even when they are listening to songs from other cultures. The project asked 29,000 participants to listen to 118 songs and identify whether it was a healing song, a dance song, a love song, or a lullaby. “Statistically, people are most consistent in identifying lullabies,” he says.
In a separate study, Mehr’s lab found that even when infants were listening to lullabies that were not sung by their own caregiver, or were not from their own culture, they were still soothed. “There seems to be some kind of parenting-music connection that is both universal around the world but also old, sort of ancient. This is something that we’ve been doing for a really long time.”
The earliest complete record of a lullaby begins, “Little baby in the dark house.” It tells of a “house god” who, disturbed by the screaming of a baby, darkly calls for the child.
“They were rather brutal about it,” says Richard Dumbrill, the director of the International Council of Near-Eastern Archaeomusicology at the University of London who translated the 4,000-year-old tablet from Akkadian script. “And indeed, remember, these were brutal times. Human life was very, very cheap. It is possible that by educating their babies in fear, it would bring them to adulthood with reflexes of defense.”
The lullaby as a cautionary tale—sleep, or else—is common across cultures. Many and lurid are the child-snatching, child-snacking beasts that await those who resist sleep. The horror in these visions bypasses those too young to understand. But for older children, including those sharing bed spaces, lullabies—like other forms of folklore—are an important means of broadcasting a picture of the world.
“I sing to forget the baby’s Pa,” Patience Brooks says with a smile after settling her eight-month-old daughter, Marta, to sleep. Bedtime at Patience’s home in Monrovia, Liberia, is an animated affair. The Mamba Point neighborhood vibrates with music, the scrape of dinnertime, and conversation. Her nighttime tunes are a blend of song, scat, and beatbox known locally as “lie-lies.” Lie-lie songs are creative expressions made up by babies’ caretakers to stop them from crying, to put them to bed, or to entertain. Patience drums against Marta’s back as the pair bump and sway, and the girl falls asleep to her mother’s dance.
Sleep, baby, sleep / Sleep, baby, sleep / Momma want to see you sleepy / And then when you sleepy / Momma feel so fine / Momma feel so good / So sleep, sleep / Sleep, baby, sleep
For Patience, a mother of two who gave birth to her first daughter at 13, mothering presents challenges familiar to the estimated three in 10 Liberian teens who have had a baby or been pregnant between the ages of 15 and 19.
In this neighborhood, the spaces outside become communal living rooms as neighbors help with the day-to-day tasks of caring for children. Women take turns watching over dozens of children as they play and share, allowing mothers to prepare dinners for their families and spend time at home in the evening after a workday.
“Once upon a time …” Patience begins, and the children listen. They take turns making up tales and sing songs together. The tiny space fills with the lore of kings and queens. As night falls, the air is charged with musical refrains of magical creatures and adventures in the woods.
Cirelli’s research found that children who share synchronous musical experiences with other people are more likely to offer them support. “If you are singing the same songs as your community members,” Cirelli says, “it’s this cue for kinship and group membership.”
Bedtime and lullabies are as diverse as our world. For 10-year-old Zaijan Villaruel, who lives in the Philippines, sleep is dictated by the tides of the sea and his family’s needs. At night he fishes with his father and older brothers and falls asleep to the sound of the waves and the motor of the outrigger boat on the way home.
The Philippines is part of the Coral Triangle, with more species of marine life than anywhere else on Earth. Fishing communities like the one where Zaijan and his dad, Umbing Villaruel, live, rely on the sea for sustenance and bear some of the greatest brunt of climate change.
Umbing does not want his sons to become fishermen; catches have dwindled drastically in the past decade from overfishing. But because of the lockdown during the pandemic, Zaijan learned to fish to help provide for his family. “He learned to survive in a time of loss,” Umbing says.
During the daytime, Zaijan sings songs he learned from the karaoke machine to his two-year-old baby sister, Jazzy, in their home in the province of Bataan. He rocks her gently back and forth, and she falls asleep to a song about a boy hoping for a girl’s tears to dry.
In the Philippines, where I am from, the words “Tahan na” are uttered between lullabies. The words often are said to calm a weeping person and translate to “stop crying.” But to say “tahan na” is to also say “feel safe,” “feel still,” and “feel at peace.” Tahanan, the word for “home” in Filipino, is the place where tears subside.
Carnegie Hall, the historic music venue in New York City, developed the Lullaby Project in 2011. Based on research that lullabies benefit maternal health, strengthen bonds between parent and child, and aid child development, the project fosters collaborations between professional musicians and new parents to compose personal lullabies for their babies. Since its inception, the project has helped create thousands of lullabies spanning multiple countries, reaching mothers and fathers through hospitals, homeless shelters, programs for young mothers, and correctional facilities. “We are essentially thinking of lullabies as an anchor, in very simple terms, for parents to express their personal hopes, dreams, and wishes for their children and for themselves,” says director of Early Childhood Programs Tiffany Ortiz, who oversees the Lullaby Project.
“Many mothers will actively talk about using lullaby songs, chants, as a way of reestablishing home,” says Dennie Palmer Wolf, a research consultant for the Lullaby Project. Migrant families in Greece participated in the Carnegie project, and local collaborators describe their lullabies as “portable sanctuaries.”
“Like prayers or traditional stories, you can carry them anywhere with you,” Palmer Wolf says. “They take no room in your backpack; you can always pack them in. It’s a way of establishing continuity where there is almost none.”
Lullabies reflect the present, but they are often rooted in the past.
In Mongolia the buuvei lullaby has been sung by nomads for generations. Its refrain, “buuvei,” means “don’t fear.” “Love is the most important thing—passed on like a heritage,” Bayartai Genden, a Mongolian traditional singer and dancer, and grandmother of 13, tells us as she describes “the magic of giving love to your child through melodies.”
Bayartai laments the smog that covers Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, a barrier between herself and her ancestors. “Our ancestors from the blue sky must be crying because of the air pollution,” she says. “The sky used to be blue.” Bayartai sings a lullaby to her newborn grandson. An air purifier hums in the background.
In Ulaanbaatar, one of the world’s coldest capitals, winter is marked not only by temperatures that can reach minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit but also by toxic air. Coal-burning power plants and families using coal to heat their homes cause hazardous levels of air pollution, sometimes more than a hundred times the safe limit set for fine particulate matter by the World Health Organization.
With more than half of Mongolia’s children living in Ulaanbaatar, where pneumonia is the second leading cause of death of children under age five, UNICEF declared that the city’s air pollution has become a child health crisis.
“I use these words to protect my children. They help my children heal,” Oyunchimeg Buyankhuu says of the lullabies she sang when her two daughters were often sickened by the pollution. Her family moved out of the city so her children could breathe fresher air. Oyunchimeg sings the traditional buuvei lullaby, but between refrains she whispers healing words, reshaping a long-established song for today.
In turbulent times stories bring us together. As the COVID-19 pandemic began altering life worldwide, physical distancing drastically changed the way we connect. Women make up nearly 70 percent of health and social service workers globally. For mothers working on the front lines of the pandemic, putting themselves at risk to care for their communities comes with the challenge of how best to care for their own families.
Elizabeth Streeter, a nurse in Massachusetts, works on the COVID-19 floor of her hospital. As the pandemic escalated, she made the difficult decision to isolate from her four boys in early April, to avoid exposing them to the virus. She stayed in an RV outside of her parents’ home for a month while her husband stayed home to care for their children. During the evenings, Elizabeth connected with her family over the phone. She would sing her three-year-old son’s favorite lullaby while fighting through tears, unclear about when she might get to hold him again.
“To separate such a sacred bond between mother and child, there are no words,” she says in a journal post on Facebook. For Elizabeth, making her children safe meant being physically present. But to serve her community during the pandemic, that has shifted. These days, living away from her children has become her way of keeping them safe. “It looks entirely different than what I always thought protection looked like.”
Allison Conlon, a nurse from Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who works in a hospital’s intensive care unit, also separated from her family. At night she called Lucas, two, to read to him and sing “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” before he went to bed. On Sundays she visited her family’s home but did not enter, instead reading stories to him through a glass storm door. From her side of the glass, Allison gave her son a high five and a kiss. “My son was so resilient and adapted to the change very well, and for that I am super thankful,” she says.
To sing a lullaby to someone is to make a connection. The songs connect caregiver to child, but perhaps less noticeably, they also tell stories that connect us to our past, and to each other. Bayartai Genden describes the lullaby as “an exchange of two souls.”
Lullabies are part of the fabric from which caregivers create safe spaces that are necessary for dreams to unfold. Khadija al Mohammad says Ahmad reaches out for her lullabies “not only to sleep but to feel my tenderness.” These songs remind us that we are not alone, and in the dark of night, they seem to hold a promise that on the other side waits the light of morning.
Hannah Reyes Morales is a National Geographic explorer whose work focuses on resilience and human connection. Rupert Compston, a musician and sound recordist, contributed reporting and produced audio for this story.