The magical effect of music and song for your Special Needs Child

Christina Lydon is one of those gems that you stumble across on social media, someone doing something interesting, worthwhile and more importantly, changing the lives of children with SEN. She is a Music Therapist working for the NHS in a Learning Disability team within a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service in London. She also has a private Music Therapy and parenting practice in Surrey and London. She runs Balloons and Tunes Parties – offering bespoke music parties for children with special needs in South London, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire.

Music is a very big part of our lives, it's my husband's career, and I took both girls to music groups as babies and toddlers. I could see the benefits for them back then. In this guest post Christina explains in a little more depth how this is so.

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balloons toons

I have been asked to write an article about singing and using music with your special needs child. I am a trained music therapist and have worked with special needs children for the past 15 years. The thoughts and ideas in this article are all suitable for trying at home with your baby or child, you don’t need to be a music expert!

From the beginning

From the moment your baby is born he is hard-wired to be looking and listening for you. In those early days he tracks your face – looking specifically for your eyes and mouth and listening for your voice.

For all those months that your baby is in the womb it is you and those close to you that he has heard. It is you he wants to hear for reassurance, for quiet words when he cries and for laughs and smiles when he coos and squeals with delight!

Music is an inherent part of us as human beings, from the rhythms of our breathing and our heartbeats to the lullabies that we thought we’d forgotten that come back to us as parents. We all create music and it is part of us. That is why singing is an effective way to bond, interact and play with your child. Your child adores your voice, even if YOU think it’s best kept behind closed doors while singing in the shower! In my music therapy sessions I often meet parents who are embarrassed or too shy to sing in front of me or others, but I remind them: ‘Just whisper at first, they’ll be listening out – they don’t want to hear me – just you!’

Music in the Special care environment

A friend whose little boy was born with Down’s Syndrome has kindly let me share her experiences with you. I’m sure many of you reading will identify with some of her thoughts. Her little boy arrived in the world four weeks early. Being tiny he then had some trouble feeding, as well as other health needs. The medical staff felt that after a day with his mum he ought to be in the Special Care baby unit to be monitored more closely – and there he had to stay for just over four weeks.

I cannot begin to imagine how potentially stressful, worrying and intrusive this must be for parents with new babies. You’ve just given birth; you’re separated from you child; perhaps you are waiting for test results, waiting each day, each hour to see how the doctors feel. This all adds to an emotionally challenging mix.

She explained that it felt like a goldfish bowl: you go in to feed your baby or bring expressed milk. Everyone is watching you, looking for your reaction. Each new mother, even if your child isn’t in Special Care, has times when they are teary, overwhelmed, exhausted and I can only imagine this must be magnified by taking on new complicated information about your child.

Once she was back home I talked to her about the newly formed MANDARI group (Music and the Neuro Developmentally At-Risk Infant), which recently presented at Imperial College London. They used research that had been conducted in the UK and abroad on the subject of singing in Special Care baby unit situations. Their talk offered parents ways of being with and bonding with their tiny or unwell baby through a variety of musical scenarios, such as singing well-known or newly-composed songs and Music Therapists mimicking the sound of the heart beat within the womb, using musical instruments or voice in among all wires, beeps and information.

Something that stuck with me was my friend’s poignant comment that ‘sometimes it was hard to know what to say to the baby, singing would have been easier’. I imagine then that words already there in nursery rhymes or indeed any song that jumped into your head would bring you a special focus and togetherness with your child in that moment.

Indeed, in August, the Science Daily website featured recent research from a hospital in Israel showing that maternal singing during skin-to skin contact benefits both pre term infants and their mothers!

Finally, I should add that my friend and her little boy are now back home and all doing brilliantly, and he is getting gorgeously chubby!

Taking the Scary out of Singing

Singing can seem scary, especially if you feel embarrassed or haven’t sung since primary school harvest festival. However, if you look at what singing can offer, you might find that it has a strong overlap with your child’s educational aims or IEP.

  • Eye contact
  • Shared attention
  • Motivation
  • Choice
  • Anticipation
  • interaction
  • FUN!

Set some specific time aside, listen to and look at your child carefully you’ll begin to pick up their cues of when they are showing intent to choose to make a sound or perhaps reach for an instrument. Think about involving all the family and creating a shared experience.

In my sessions I frequently use bubbles, puppets, mirrors and other interesting props and there is no reason why you shouldn’t do the same. Once you start building up a little stash, it doesn’t take long for it to grow into fun and exciting collection. Of course an object of reference that is tactile and prompts sensory awareness such as handbells or other inexpensive percussion instruments are particularly useful for a child with special needs. My favourite places to buy equipment are TIGER or Sue Ryder charity shops.

So be brave. Try it at home first if you’re nervous doing it in front of others. By singing, vocalising, matching and responding to your child’s sound you are helping them make connections with you, and helping them to learn about what is around them, building those blocks for social interaction and language development. Exploring instruments, home-made or otherwise will, I guarantee, stimulate lots of fun activities together.

Home-made music

  • Stretch some elastic bands over a tissue box, and decorate it with paint or by sticking things on. Personalise it to your child’s interests
  • Fill a squash bottle with lentils, rice, bits of scrunched up foil, buttons, or anything else you can think of, then seal the top with tape.
  • Your props don’t have to look like traditional instruments. Any sensory items that scrunch and are touch-feely will work, and they don’t have to be pricey. You’ll find lots of suitable things in any Pound Shop.
  • Go old-school and let them loose in the kitchen cupboards, to play with pans, bowls and wooden spoons.

Before you know it, making music will feel easy and more natural. You’ll be singing about what’s on special offer at the supermarket to your child and tapping away on the trolley with your car keys without even realising – I promise!

Christina is a guest blogger for www.mybaba.com and www.motherscollective.co.uk and can also be contacted via her sites www.christinalydon.co.uk and www.balloonsandtunesparties.co.uk

Hayley Goleniowska
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Hayley Goleniowska

Parent Advocate/Blogger at Downsside Up
Hayley Goleniowska is the author of the popular blog, Downs Side Up, where she writes about life with her daughters, one of whom has Downs Syndrome, and other issues surrounding disability.
Hayley Goleniowska
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