The study, led by researchers from the Centre for Performance Science and funded by Arts Council England, placed 134 mothers with symptoms of postnatal depression into separate groups to see whether singing could reduce their symptoms in the first 40 weeks after birth.
New mothers in the group that sung reported a faster improvement in their symptoms than the control group.
“Many mothers have concerns about taking depression medication whilst breastfeeding and uptake of psychological therapies with new mothers is relatively low,” said Dr Daisy Fancourt from University College London, lead author of the study.
“So these results are really exciting as they suggest that something as simple as referring mothers to community activities could support their recovery.”
For the study, one group of women received their usual care to help them manage their postnatal depression, another group received 10 weeks of group play workshops and the final group received 10 weeks of group singing workshops.
Singing workshops involved mums listening to songs sung by the group leader, learning and singing songs with their babies and creating new songs together reflecting aspects of motherhood.
Mothers with “moderate to severe” symptoms of postnatal depression in the singing group reported a much faster improvement in their symptoms than mothers in the usual care group.
There was no significant difference in speed of recovery between the play group and the usual care group.
The study reiterated previous findings that postnatal depression improves over time.
Dr Rosie Perkins, research fellow in the Centre for Performance Science and principal investigator for the research, said: “Postnatal depression is debilitating for mothers and their families, yet our research indicates that for some women something as accessible as singing with their baby could help to speed up recovery at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives.”
Commenting on the study, Dr Trudi Seneviratne, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Perinatal Faculty said it was “exciting” to hear about how singing can facilitate a more rapid recovery for women with postnatal depression.
“Breathe Arts Health Research have already put the new findings into practice, running singing workshops in partnership with Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust for women with postnatal depression across Lambeth and Southwark,” she said. “It hopes the programme will reach over 200 new mothers in the next three years and will specifically target women from deprived backgrounds or from typically hard to reach groups.
“If rolled out wider, this type of psychosocial intervention could become an additional treatment to what is currently available for mothers struggling with their mental health such as psychotherapy and antidepressants.
“Singing is a known benefit for improving the mental health of older people and patients with dementia, but until now there has not been a controlled study about the effect of singing in improving symptoms of postnatal depression in new mothers.”
Singing has previously been reported to boost mental health. A study in December 2017 by University of East Anglia found singing, particularly as part of a group, is “essential in effecting [mental health] recovery”.
“The combination of singing and social engagement produced an ongoing feeling of belonging and wellbeing,” researchers said at the time. “Attendance provided them [participants] with structure, support and contact that improved functioning and mood.”
In 2011, a Swedish study published in the journal Integrative Physiological and Behavioural Science suggested that singing triggers the release of “happy” hormones such as oxytocin, which is thought to help lower stress levels and blood pressure.
Where can new parents sing in groups with their babies?
There are many franchises that run musical classes with new parents and their babies throughout the UK. We’ve listed a few of these below:
Baby Sensory - Classes are situated throughout the UK that provide an opportunity to aid your child’s development. A large part of the classes involve singing with your babies in your lap, including actions and props. Find out what a baby sensory class is like here.
How you can sing with your baby at home - and what to sing?
If heading out to group classes isn’t feasible for you for whatever reason, you could still reap the benefits of singing by doing it at home with your baby.
Vasili Karpiak, a vocal coach and singing teacher in London (The Vocal Coach London), said he has witnessed the benefits singing can have on people’s mental health on numerous occasions.
“Whether it’s a banker who is seeking a form of mental relaxation, a teenager who feels uncertain about himself or a mum tired of daily obligations - after the first session, 99% of my pupils break all the psychological barriers and feel happy about themselves, uplifted, energised and focused,” he told HuffPost UK.
“In my opinion, during the postnatal period, even humming without any words with a closed mouth will uplift your energy. You can simply vocalise some easy scales or try to sing together with your favourite singer. Do not go for technically difficult songs.
“Good choices for new parents would be ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Dreamed A Dream’ from Les Mis. Many of Elton John’s songs are great to sing as well. If you like jazz, songs from Billie Holiday’s repertoire will also be great.
“The main idea behind is that you focus on the text and the melody. I assure you the magic of singing will bring the most joyful result.”
Staff from Making Music, a UK organisation for voluntary music with around 3,000 member groups, also put forward their song suggestions to mums:
1. ’Walking on Sunshine′ (Katrina and the Waves), ‘Happy′ (Pharrell Williams) or ‘What a Wonderful World’ (Louis Armstrong)
2. ’I’m Feeling Good′ (Nina Simone)
3. ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’ (from the Jungle Book)
4. ‘Nessun Dorma’ (from Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot’).