Rhythm and song are intrinsic to all human bodies — babies are no exception. If you're lucky, your baby will reveal a lot about her needs and desires through rhythmic moves and routines. Just a few weeks after birth, rhythmic patterns of sleep and feeding become more apparent to sleep-deprived parents. Babies start to settle into a schedule of two naps a day plus longer nighttime sleep. Rhythms may also characterize body functions like eating or toileting. Some babies turn red in the face just after a mid-morning nursing and poop mightily.
Rhythms are so comforting to babies that they often use rocking to reveal when they are bored or lonesome. Some wee ones will occupy themselves by twisting their hands in front of them and staring at them while lying in a crib. These are signals that your baby needs more variety in intimate back-and-forth play. Crib toys, overhead mobiles, lots of floor time on the tummy, and time together with you will take away your baby's need for stereotyped rhythmic rocking.
On the other hand, rhythmic rocking and rolling to nursery rhymes is something to encourage. The timeless appeal of these rhythmic treasures help infants and toddlers develop language and enjoy movement. As you recite the familiar and strongly emphatic rhythms of "Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow," you may find your youngster bouncing up and down. A high-energy toddler may vigorously and happily "ride" his rocker as you intone the rhythms of the familiar rhyme "Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady upon a white horse."
The Rhythm of Reading
By emphasizing rhyming poems and games with your infant or toddler, you're also helping his emerging literacy. The instinct to rhyme comes somewhat naturally. Researchers have overheard and reported that even young toddlers practice their own made-up rhymes, such as "Oogie, woogie, poogie" over and over. Infants and toddlers tack on the "-ee" sound as a diminutive to many words. Toddlers call out "doggie," "kitty," "horsey," as they point and label the animals they see in a picture book.
Toddlers giggle at funny rhymes even when these involve nonsense words, as in many of the Dr. Seuss books. Becoming aware of rhyming sounds boosts brain activity and early literacy ability. Adding singsong rhyming words to requests for your child to listen or to stop an activity is a great way to get her attention. Rhymes and rhythms add zest and humor as well as increasing your child's cooperation.
To encourage your baby or toddler's rhythmic expression, here are some activities to try:
- If your baby has clearly observable bodily rhythms, take advantage of this in scheduling feedings or diaper changes or settling her to sleep. If your child is unpredictable in her rhythms, try to make feeding or napping times less stressful for yourself and baby by tuning in to the variable rhythms of that infant. As she comes to trust that you are aware of and respectful of her bodily rhythms, she may gradually become able to meet your needs for regular times for morning naps and afternoon naps.
- On a small drum, or upturned wastebasket, rhythmically pound out familiar rhymes that delight your baby and get him bouncing up and down or swaying back and forth.
- Create a rhyming game where you emphasize the rhythm as you chant out your family's names. Go in order, starting with baby. "We have a little friend we know. Her name is Sally, Oh!" Draw out the "oh" sound to emphasize the rhyming sounds. Encourage your child to chant her own garbled syllables.
- Turn pages slowly while enjoying animal picture books with your child, and choose books where rhymes abound. "Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a [animal] looking at me!" is a fine example of an animal picture book that charms toddlers and also helps them listen for rhymes. Hearing the simple rhyme of "see" and "me," your child tunes into rhyming sounds. The animal pictures and the satisfying repetitions of the verses heighten the pleasure of learning to listen for rhymes.
- Chant rhythms and rhymes while acting out storybook characters' behaviors. Listening to the rhyming poem "Five little monkeys jumping on the bed," your child anticipates each new naughty behavior with glee. Join in with hand motions and chime in with vigorous shouts when the story continues: "Mama called the doctor and the doctor said: ‘No more monkeys jumping on the bed!'"
- Calling out strong rhyming chants while engaging your child in running or jumping games helps to bring her even more pleasure in movement. If your toddler is overweight, try adding rhyme and rhythm to your movement activities to get her going more enthusiastically.
- When starting a new activity, such as play dough, create a rhythmic chant that will make your child grin and giggle as you give rules for how to use the materials not-too-messily. "We're going to roll out our goopy play dough, right here on our table-o!" Draw out your rhyming "oh" sounds so you create a rhyme that teaches your child to keep the play dough on the table while working, and yet helps him anticipate with pleasure the satisfying sensory experience of rolling, pounding, and playing with creative materials.