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Which lullabies do the best job at bedtime? Readers share some surprising favorites

Leif Parsons for NPR

Updated June 25, 2023 at 8:16 AM ET

"Pick a song that you can stand to sing over and over, maybe for years," is advice that Elizabeth Wolf of Merrimac, Mass., gives new parents. "Doesn't matter how well you sing it. Over time that will be the most soothing sound your child knows."

That sentiment was reflected in the many, many lovely stories you so generously shared with us in response to our story on lullabies. We invited readers to send their memories — and, when possible, recordings — of lullabies that worked wonders at naptime or bedtime. Thank you to the nearly 200 crooners who responded. We read (and listened to) each story and song. You made us smile, laugh, tear up ... and even get a little sleepy. Here's a selection of the lullabies that have struck a chord with the NPR audience.

The songs you shared come from all around the world, with lyrics that touch on the divine — and, to our surprise, nasty tigers.

Vandna Milligan of Seattle, Wash., would sing "Achyutam Keshavam." It's an unlikely title for a bedtime song — the translation is "infallible one and killer of demons." But that's not what the song is about. It's an ode to the baby Krishna. "In Hinduism, [the God] Krishna is the embodiment of childlike joy that is the prize of life," Milligan says. The song asks the question: "Who says that God does not sleep?" and has a line about rocking the baby Krishna to sleep.

That resonated with Milligan. "I fretted about my baby's eating and sleeping." The song "tells me that I just have to sing to my baby the way Krishna's mom sang to him, and he will sleep," she writes. "I hope you enjoy it, it brings happy tears to me."

Tina Ling of Woodland Hills, Calif., gave a new (and kinder) twist to a Chinese lullaby her mother sang to her. "The original version is called 'Aunt Tiger,' or 'Hu Gu Po,' " she writes. The lyrics tell "a bit of a cautionary tale, warning the children that if they don't go to sleep or stop crying, the tiger will eat their little fingers or their little ears. Even though I did not take it literally, I remember being extra motivated to keep my eyes shut just in case. When I became a mom, I found myself humming the melody to my baby but could not bring myself to sing the somewhat troublesome lyrics. Therefore, I changed the title character to firefly, or Ying Huo Chong. Instead of threatening to eat her, these fireflies promise to light up and stay beside her in the darkness. I feel that it sends a much more comforting message yet still carries the same sentimental value and nostalgia as I now pass it down to the next generation. Maybe one day my kid will choose to craft her own version too, but we will still share the same melody and love for our family."

Like Ling, many of you wrote that lullabies link us across generations. Becca Poccia Hays of Rochester, N.Y., remembers her mother singing many songs to her but "the one that has become most special to me is 'Duerme, mi tripón.' " It's a Venezuelan folk song that translates to "sleep, my child." When Hays studied Spanish in college, she says the memory of the song resurfaced and brought her closer to her mom. "Suddenly the syllables of this song I hadn't thought about for years came back to me and started arranging themselves in words and then sentences." Now she sings it to her 15-month-old son. "I like to imagine him learning Spanish when he's older ," she says, and being embraced by a memory of the song.

Jennifer Hsu Larratt-Smith of Riverside, Calif., also feels a generational connection from a family lullaby. "I am second-generation Chinese American, and my dad would sing this lullaby to me every night," she says. "I grew up not knowing Chinese, and it wasn't until I was an adult that I understood the words. But its lilting phrases have always brought me a sense of peace. I sang this lullaby nightly to my children when they were younger. The song was a musical bridge to my father's world and to mine," she writes. Below is a rough translation to English.

The song "Eli Eli" enables Beverly Tsacoyianis, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., to sing to her children a song steeped in history. The song, whose title means "My God, My God," is based on the a poem by the Hungarian Jewish pilot Hannah Szenes, who died in a effort to rescue Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. The verse speaks of the beauty of nature: "I pray that it never will end. The sand and the sea..." Tsacoyianis writes that she will some day tell her kids the story of Hannah Szenes but for now just enjoys the melody and lyrics as she sings. "I have sung it over the years to my twin boys who are now 7 years old. They both have ADHD and autism diagnoses. For ADHD they are 'predominantly inattentive' and for ASD one was diagnosed mild and the other moderate," she writes, "but when they ask for this lullaby, or when I ask if they'd like to hear it, their little faces and bodies relax almost instantly as I begin."

A song sung by a traveling harp player captivated Benjamin Fairfield of Honolulu when he and his wife were serving in the Peace Corps in the mid-2000s near the Thailand/Myanmar border. "It was performed as a participatory show closer by the regionally-famous Tue Pho from Omkoi, Thailand. He roamed the mountains of Chiang Mai and Tak provinces on his motorcycle with his tehnaku [6-stringed harp], playing shows in remote Karen villages to audiences who had no electricity but listened regularly to his songs via battery-powered transistor radios," Fairfield writes. "The lyrics speak of a man missing his departed wife, his tears falling on the red blanket she wove for him as a gift at their marriage." His sons are ages 6 and 3. "When I sing the song to our boys at night, it conjures up vivid memories of cold teak forests, smoky hearths with sooty tea kettles and the full moon reflected in the highland rice paddies."

A story of a calf being led to slaughter contrasted with the freedom of birds in flight — that's the mournful Yiddish folk song "Dona, Dona" that Elizabeth Wolf sang in English to her daughter "for bedtime, sickness, big sadness or upset," she says. "I don't know where I learned it, probably from Joan Baez. It's perfect in so many ways. The song has three verses and three parts, so one time through is the magic number nine. I sang it in the rocking chair, in her bed and mine, throughout infancy and toddler years, for weeks after our house burned down, for months through a messy divorce. My daughter is now 24 and my voice is older and shakier. But this song is part of our history."

A mother hen teaches her chicks about the world in "La Cocorica," the song that Lily Ibarra of San Antonio, Texas, sings to her kids. It's a tune popularized by the Mexican children's singer Francisco Gabilondo Soler, known popularly as Cri-Cri, a cricket character he first created in the 1930s for a radio broadcast. Ibarra says her mom used to sing it to her and her brother, and now she sings it to her kids. She writes: "In all honesty, when I start singing it, I get sleepy and start falling asleep before they do lol."

Then there are the contemporary songs that are transformed into lullabies. DaKishia Reid of Winston-Salem, N.C., offers that her family's favorite bedtime song is Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up." "Our kiddo was born with surprisingly intense medical complexity, and it was off to the races from there," she writes. "There have been many times in the last five years where we have laid down to rest in the hospital. And wherever we go, our nighttime ritual comes right along. My child starts kindergarten in the fall. I am amazed at her ability to roll with the punches, her even-headedness, her abundant joy. I mean, we do OK as parents, sure. But Imma add that a good sleep schedule, and a lullaby whispered to me by the Divine, probably helps out a lot."

Stacie Eirich of Louisiana is currently in Memphis while her daughter undergoes cancer treatments at St. Jude's Children's Hospital. "We sing often, and believe music and the arts are essential to life," she writes. "Medhel An Gwyns," which translates from Cornish to "Soft is the Wind," was written for the TV series Poldark. The song is a favorite of her son's. "The song speaks of Cornwall's beauty as well as its people, their daily lives determined by mining and the tide, with family, love and survival at its center."

Boy bands also got a lullaby shout-out. Sharon Friedenbach Morris of Chicago, Ill., says: "I'm a mother and a pediatric nurse, and over the last 9+ years of my personal and professional life, I have found one fail-safe lullaby for babies under 1 year old. Every time I use it, the screaming baby in question is quiet by the bridge. I use it sparingly: I respect and honor the song's dark magic. It's 'I Want It That Way' by the Backstreet Boys."

Indeed, there was a lot of pop music in the lullaby library, including "Blackbird" by The Beatles, Tom Waits' "Midnight Lullaby" and Billy Joel's "Lullabye."

Childhood experiences led some parents to their lullaby choice. Katie Beck of Tacoma, Wash. says when she came home from the hospital with her newborn daughter she couldn't think of a single song to calm her down. "So I pulled out my camp song book and started singing," she says. Her go-to from Camp St. Albans in western Washington was, "Moon on the Meadow," a song about friendships made at camp — and she reports it has her 3-month-old daughter asleep in a few minutes.

And then there are the classics. A lot of you told us that you go for "You Are My Sunshine," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" — and, no surprise, the instantly recognizable Brahms lullaby by German composer Johannes Brahms. The song, known as "Wiegenlied" in German, begins "Lullaby, and goodnight ..." and its familiar melody is considered by many to be the quintessential lullaby. Sarah Roberts of Belle Mead, N.J., says, "my mother, a classical pianist, would go downstairs and play it on the piano for my sister and me after tucking us in." Roberts says she later sang it to her own children.

Lorraine LoRusso of Nashua, N.H., says her mother sang the Brahms lullaby to her. "Fast forward to 5 years ago, my daughter-in-law could not get my grandson to sleep at all so I asked if I could try," she says. After using the "combination of words and humming" that her mom used, "within 2 minutes my grandson was sleeping." Lots of readers told us they hummed some of the melody because they didn't know the words.

"Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That's an Irish Lullaby)," is another favorite suggested in nearly a dozen responses. Bing Crosby's recording in the 1940s may be a factor in its popularity. This website has a few versions of the song, which was written by Irish-American composer James Royce Shannon in 1913. Megan Hartnett of Alexandria, Va. writes that her grandmother Mary Jo Hartnett would sing it to her, and she swore it was magic. "I could feel myself getting sleepy," she says. "Years later I sing that song to my 1-year-old son almost every night. My grandma passed away just a couple weeks after I told her I was pregnant, but whenever I sing that song I think of her." When Hartnett sings the song, she says, "I take that time too to think about what I'm grateful for and the people and love that I've been surrounded by."

The spiritual "Amazing Grace" was the song Grace Hutto of Washington, D.C.'s mother sang to her. Her mother was a skilled improviser. When her sister was born, mom modified the lyrics to "Amazing Sarah," and at sleepovers, "my mother sang 'Amazing Gabby,' 'Amazing Kelly Anne,' 'Amazing Sophie,' 'Amazing Evie' and so on."

Martha Shaver of Northpoint, Mich., and Meredith Neill of Burbank, Calif., both offer the lighthearted "Skidamarink," (which actually has a variety of spellings due to it ... not being a real word): "Skidamarink a dink a dink, skidamarink a doo... I love you in the morning and in the afternoon..." It's a song from a 1910 musical that has gone on to become a children's classic.

Other traditional lullabies you told us you sing: "All the Pretty Little Horses" from Jo Shafer of Yakima, Wash., Sara Stroud of Little Rock, Ark., and Joshua Watts of Richmond, Va.; "Goodnight, Sweetheart" came from Kat Barnett of Guam.

Musicals provided a lot of lullaby material, including: "Goodnight My Someone" from Meredith Willson's The Music Man, "Summertime" from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and "Happiness" from You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown and "Stay Awake" from Mary Poppins — sung by Heidi Pennington of Harrisonburg, Va., Emily Paul of Staunton, Ill., and Natasha Ramirez of San Antonio, Texas..

Lynne Mullins of Livermore, Calif., and Heidi Pennington have "Silent Night" on heavy rotation.

Heidi Pennington also sings "Edelweiss," as does Liezl Alcantara Houglum of Maui, Hawaii (who, indeed, says her father named her after the character in The Sound of Music, from which the song originates). "Instead of 'bless my homeland forever,' he would tenderly sing, 'bless my children forever,' " writes Houglum. "Such a sweet sentiment that touches my heart to this day. Now, my two young kiddos request 'Edelweiss' at bedtime and sing along with my husband and me." Sometimes, as in the clip below, her husband accompanies with the ukulele.

There was a lot of pop music in the lullaby library, too, like "Blackbird" by The Beatles, Tom Waits' "Midnight Lullaby" and Billy Joel's "Lullabye."

The soothing holiday classic "Silent Night" is part of the bedtime rotation for Lynne Mullins of Livermore, Calif.

And of course, people sing songs that may never in a million years seem lullaby-ish. Chu Man Kow of Yorba Linda, Calif. turns to "The Star Spangled Banner." Ben Trumbo of Harrison, Va., goes for "Take Me out to the Ballgame" and Victoria Vlach of Austin, Texas says her grandmother, who had roots in Bohemia (in what is now the Czech Republic), sang her "God Bless America."

Vlach also submitted a musical mystery. "One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother holding me in her arms and rocking me as she sang," Vlach writes. She sent us her favorite (in the sound clip below). "I don't know what it's actually called, but I call it 'Uustoo donkey,' and there's one section I can never remember — but I always felt loved and cared for when she sang this song to me. I remember asking what the song was about, but I don't remember anymore what she said — maybe something about a donkey and/or fish in a pond?"

We put out a call to our readers — and Cindy Frase came to the rescue! The name of the song turns out to be "U Studánky," which translates as "At the Spring," Frase emailed us. As you can probably guess from the title, there is no mention of a donkey. Rather, the lyrics offer up the confession of a young girl who sees a wee fish in the spring, "swallowing water," and croons: "I heard that you know magic tricks/You know what is bothering my heart/You know where my darling is."

Parents also pointed out that kids can be tough lullaby critics. Ah, the sad sting of lullaby rejection!

Joanne Hyso of Berkley, Mich. writes: "When I was pregnant with my third child, I decided that if I sang the same song daily during my pregnancy the baby would always find comfort in the lullaby because it was familiar. I liked the song, 'I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marbled Halls' as sung by Enya, and it seemed lullaby-ish to me, so I sang it all the time to my growing tummy. I thought I was brilliant. As a baby, my daughter, Rachel, cried every time I sang that song. Once she had words, she would scream at me, Stop singing!' She is 30 years old now and still hates that song."

Sometimes it's not the song that sets off sparks so much as the singer. Judy Stubchaer of Santa Barbara, Calif., says, "I don't have a good ear; I sing off key without being aware of it. When I started a lullaby, our boys would groan and shout, 'Don't sing, Mom! We'll go to sleep! We promise! But DON'T SING!' "

As we wind down our lullaby collection, we'll reach for a philosophical note. "My mother sang Joni Mitchell's 'Circle Game' to my sister and me as a lullaby," writes Lauren Slubowski Keenan-Devlin of Evanston, Ill. "She only ever sang us the refrain, but when I had my own daughters I taught myself the lyrics for all four verses and changed the main character from a boy to a girl. They say the days are long but the years are short; Joni Mitchell's lyrics reminded me to cherish the short years at the end of those long days."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Gisele Grayson
Gisele Grayson is a deputy editor on NPR's science desk. She edits stories about climate, the environment, space, and about basic research in biology and physics.