Photos by Diego Valdez.

Love notes: An interdisciplinary project helps new and expectant mothers in difficult circumstances write lullabies to bond with their children

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Can 12 hours make a significant difference in how much an expectant mother bonds with her child?

Virginia Commonwealth University aims to find out.

Through a partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project, musicians, researchers and health care providers from across the university are working on an intervention for new or expectant mothers facing the hardships of parenting in challenging settings such as correctional facilities, group homes for teenagers and hospitals. Such settings often hinder mothers from bonding with their newborns. The Lullaby Project aims to increase the mother-child bond through language that is universal: music.

Writing original lullabies for their children promotes a positive relationship and helps mothers express their feelings in a song that can be played and sung before and after the baby’s birth. With the help of professional musicians, the moms write lyrics and music, and the song is then recorded in a studio, in some cases with the mother participating.

Sarah Cunningham, Ph.D., executive director for research at the VCU School of the Arts, brought the project to VCU as a complement to the university’s strong arts/health portfolio. VCU — through the School of the Arts’ Department of Music and the VCUArts Arts Research Institute, and the VCU Health System’s Institute for Women’s Health and Centering Pregnancy program — will launch an 18-month study, made possible through a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to Carnegie Hall, in the fall.

The study will evaluate the intervention’s potential impact on the mother’s perceptions of bonding with her unborn baby and feelings associated with being a parent, her own psychological health and symptom distress, and perceived maternal stress.

Our hypothesis is that mothers that participate in this group will report higher feelings of attachment and affiliative emotions toward their unborn baby.

“Our hypothesis is that mothers that participate in this group will report higher feelings of attachment and affiliative emotions toward their unborn baby,” said Jennifer Hinesley, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children. “We also predict mothers in the intervention group will be more likely to report lower symptoms of anxiety, depression and perceived stress compared to moms who do not participate in this group.”

The intervention itself consists of three back-to-back Saturday sessions. In the first session, the musicians help mothers work on lyrics by drawing on their own experiences. They might ask the mother to write a letter to the baby, or ask if the baby has a name yet and if that name has any special meaning.

“All these are sources of lyrical material,” said Taylor Barnett, coordinator of musicianship studies in the VCU Department of Music. Earlier this year, Barnett and Department of Music alumna/staff member Karmalita Bawar received training at Carnegie Hall on conducting the songwriting workshop. Then in the spring, the duo conducted their own training — funded by the VCU schools of Medicine and the Arts — with VCU musicians who will work with mothers in the upcoming study. Four area mothers receiving care at various VCU Health clinics volunteered to participate in the training workshop, which parallels the music-writing intervention portion of the Lullaby Project.

“The teaching artist’s job is to try and say, ‘Oh hey, this right here? This would make a good little hook,’” Barnett said. “‘What would happen if you maybe speak that in rhythm?’

“Everyone gets a song or something that is almost a complete song by the end of that first session.”

One of the spring participants, Sherica, found the writing process quite easy.

As a little girl, Sherica often sang with her parents.

“Even though we [sang] awfully, we sang together,” she recalled. She remembers singing a particularly special song with her parents and singing it for her now 2-year-old son when he was born. The last time she sang it was to her mother as she lay in a coma.

Now expecting her second child in October, Sherica turned to that song for inspiration for the original lullaby she wrote for the new baby as part of the Lullaby Project. The experience was surreal and amazing, she said. While she considers herself “musically challenged,” she loves writing poetry. The lyrics came easily to her and the musicians helped in crafting the melody — in this case, a sweet tune to match Sherica’s tone.

After the first session, the musicians take all of their notes and record a simple demo to help the mothers remember their work and to ensure it matches what they had envisioned for their lullaby. The songs are professionally recorded in the second week’s session at In Your Ear Studios, with the support of studio musicians and vocalists. The mothers produce and provide feedback to shape the recording. Each song matches the mother’s personal preference in music. For example, during the training workshop, Raquel’s song, written for her 4-month-old daughter as well as her older sons, was recorded in Spanish.

“It had a little chorus that was done in Spanish, and then there was a little spoken word, essentially a letter that she wrote to her baby in Spanish,” Barnett said. “It was just the sweetest thing. … It’s a really sweet thing even just these three sessions over the course of a few weeks, seeing how proud the moms are of the work they did. It’s really pretty special.”

Raquel, whose husband helped write the lyrics, was very pleased with the way her song turned out. “I’m really happy to have been brought into the project. I never imagined that I’d be invited to participate in such a project,” she said.

In the third and final session, the entire group — mothers and their families, the musicians, and other staff working on the project — gathers for a celebration. The songs are played and participants celebrate, mingle and discuss the experience. Each mother receives a CD and lyrics sheet to take home.

“It was interesting hearing other people’s music as well. Especially Raquel’s — that song is beautiful,” said Sherica.

This summer, VCU launches into developing research. Project partners Rashel Charles of the IWH and Kirsten Olsen of Centering Pregnancy just returned from the Carnegie Hall Lullaby Summit in New York.

“VCU’s role in Lullaby is an opportunity to further the work and research around mental health in the perinatal period,” Olsen said, “and also to demonstrate our commitment to women and their families through this partnership with the renowned Carnegie Hall, whose efforts have created a national movement to support new mothers through music and song.”

The upcoming study will focus on women between the ages of 16 and 44 who are in their second trimester of pregnancy and receiving regular prenatal care at VCU Health. Some of the likely risk factors for the women include single parenthood, teenage pregnancy, poverty or lack of permanent housing. Participants randomly will be selected to receive the Lullaby intervention or to be part of a control group that receives normal care.

Hinesley, principal investigator on the research project, noted that parents who are at increased risk for developing at-risk or disordered attachments with their unborn child usually have difficult bonding histories from their own upbringing and development. Other factors affecting healthy attachments include a parent’s overall mental health and exposure to difficulties such as trauma, depression and substance abuse.

“Exposure to significant and painful experiences such as trauma does not in and of itself predict problems in parenting or in attachment patterns,” Hinesley said. “But it’s the degree to which a parent has sufficiently healed, and psychologically come to terms with their hardships that is most predictive of healthy developmental outcomes. And that’s all about resilience, hardiness and self-reflection. Those are some of the most important predictors of healthy parenting and healthy attachment, which subsequently promotes good developmental outcomes in children in the current generation as well as the next generation, when these children go on to become parents.”


Hear the lullabies recorded by mothers in the program.

"Love Is True" by Sherica

"Mi Bella Princesa" by Raquel

"Calm Down" by Taquita

"Sleeper's Meadow" by Tionna 


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