My Six-Week-Old Recognized the Song I Sang to Him In Utero


The transportive power of music never ceases to amaze. Whenever I hear the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” it’s suddenly 1997 inside my head; I’m back in high school, daydreaming while sitting on my bedroom floor, and my little blue boombox’s dial is tuned to my favorite radio station, which plays the song at least once a day. When Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” plays — and I allow myself to really listen to it — I’m back in 2006, and my dad has just had a fatal heart attack; to cope, I listen to sad songs that help me purge the waves of unmanageable emotions I’m feeling through catharsis, and Roger Waters helps me cry myself to sleep more than once.

Just a few weeks ago, the neurons in my brain connected a brand-new memory to yet another song — and it’s one of my happiest memories to date, so I know I’ll enjoy hearing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” every time it enters my aural sphere. Here’s why.

In March of 2013, I found out I was pregnant with my first child. And around month four of my pregnancy, I started singing to my baby in the shower every morning. (I’ll never be a serious contestant on American Idol, but I enjoy singing and do it a lot around my house.) I mostly sang softer, soothing songs — although every once in a while, I’d pick up the tempo and energy a little bit. Thievery Corporation’s “Sweet Tides” and Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” were two favorites of mine.

But there was one song I sang him much more frequently than any other song — “Three Little Birds.” I love the melody, and the lyrics are so comforting to me. It makes me feel safe every time I hear it. I sang “Three Little Birds” on probably four out of every five mornings in the shower, sometimes sticking to the song as Marley wrote it and sometimes making up my own lyrics about how eager I was to meet the new person growing in my belly.

I’d heard, of course, that some babies will recognize the songs they hear in utero after birth, but I wasn’t certain how much I believed it. How on earth can you tell if an infant recognizes a song? It’s not like they blurt out, “Oh, hey, I know that one! Play it again!”

I didn’t sing “Three Little Birds” to my son until he was about six weeks old — probably because I was such a zombie during those first few weeks, it didn’t even occur to me to test whether he could recognize it. But one evening, I was sitting with him on the couch. He was quiet and alert, and we’d been gazing into each other’s eyes for a few minutes when I started to sing to him. Softly and quietly, I sang the first stanza of “Three Little Birds” to him…and I was amazed by his response.

His eyes, which had been a little glazed over from several minutes of staring at my face, snapped into focus. And the biggest grin spread across his tiny face — the first smile I’d coaxed from him that I knew for sure was a real smile and not just an accident of facial expression. He started waving his arms around, cooing, and even let out a little giggle.
I was so stunned that I stopped singing for a few seconds and just watched his reaction. When I started up the song again, I couldn’t keep from laughing mid-lyric at his enthusiastic response, but he didn’t seem to mind. He listened, clearly enjoying himself, until I’d finished, and then he settled back into his quiet state, falling asleep shortly afterward.

It was a beautiful moment, and it still sends shivers down my spine to think about it. I can remember it vividly — the gentle light in the room, the microfiber of the couch beneath me, the weight of him in my arms, the flash of recognition in his eyes, the surprise and euphoria I felt, the catch in my chest and his delighted laughter.

I still sing to him every day — usually silly nonsense freestyling about what I’m doing or how cute he looks in his outfit today — and I’m excited to hear his stories about music when he develops the ability to tell them. I’m not sure what he’ll say about “Three Little Birds” then, but for me, it will forever transport me back in time to that tender, joyful experience on my living room couch.

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