How Do Babies Know How to Dance?
75 percent of babies dance by 9 months.
Posted March 18, 2023 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Babies are born ready to listen to music and start dancing earlier than previously thought.
- Activities involving music and dance support babies' social and emotional development.
- Playing enjoyable music and actively engaging babies in dancing is a great way to support healthy development.
My almost two-year-old’s current musical obsessions are 1) singing and doing the hand motions for “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and 2) dancing to the song “She’s a Lady” by Tom Jones. Due to these obsessions, reading more about how babies learn to dance has been a personal curiosity for me recently.
Besides being extremely cute, babies learning to dance is an important developmental milestone. In addition to needing the strength and coordination to be able to move their bodies to music, they also need a basic understanding of the social and emotional reasons why we dance.
We know that activities involving dance and moving to music are associated with better infant-caregiver attachment and promote more prosocial behavior compared to activities without music (Kirschner & Tomasello, 2010; Vlismas et al., 2013), so dancing is good for social development! Since babies can't understand the long-term benefits of dancing, there are likely other reasons why they are motivated to dance so early in life.
First, music and dance are universal, meaning that they can be found across basically all cultures. As a result, we believe that dance is part of what it means to be human and that babies are developmentally ready to learn about music and dance in the first years of life.
We have evidence that this preparedness to engage with music starts even before birth, as babies develop hearing and begin to respond to sounds during the second trimester. Babies actually recognize songs played to them regularly during pregnancy when they hear them again in the first few months after birth (Partanen et al., 2013). As a result, babies are set up to listen and respond to music from the beginning!
A recent study accepted in the journal Developmental Psychology asked 278 parents from 15 countries about their babies’ first dance moves (Kim & Schachner, 2022). What they found was that around 50 percent of parents reported that their child first danced by around six months of age, which is often before babies learn how to crawl. Around 75 percent of babies were dancing by around 9.5 months, and 90 percent of babies were dancing by almost 13 months, which is around the age when babies first walk.
Babies can detect whether movement is “on beat” by eight months of age but often don’t have the coordination to be able to move on beat themselves until late preschool. However, babies can change the pace of their movement between fast and slow songs. There are a ton of changes in what dance looks like in the first two years of life.
Almost 100 percent of parents in the study reported dancing with their baby, which speaks to how universal the practice is. In addition, these parents reported dancing with their babies every single day, which shows that babies are getting a lot of practice with dancing.
By around 18 months of age, 80 percent of babies incorporate imitated gestures they learned from others into their dancing. As a result, babies are developmentally ready to listen to music and learn how to dance, and they receive social benefits from dancing with their caregivers. Their cute dance moves are certainly a great motivator for us adults to dance along with them.
What do you need to know about dancing if you have a baby in your life?
- Play music. There’s no evidence that classical music is any better for babies than other music, so play the music that you and the child enjoy.
- Dance together. They might not be able to move much on their own while they’re little, but over time they’ll learn to participate more. Copying some of their dance moves and having them copy yours is a particularly fun social skill for them to develop.
- Have a great time: Some important parts of dancing for babies are that it's social (when you dance together) and that it’s enjoyable. Smiling, giving encouragement, and showing your enjoyment of your baby will make dancing a positive bonding experience for you both. Enjoying your time dancing together will also help your baby practice new motor and social skills. Have fun!
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Kim, M., & Schachner, A. (2022). The origins of dance: Characterizing the development of infants’ earliest dance behavior. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0001436