The Origins and History of Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies

The origins of many nursery rhymes and lullabies can be traced to events and common practices in history. For example Ring a Ring o’ Rosies allegedly remembers the Great Bubonic Plague and dates from the 1347, although some writers are of the opinion that it refers to the plague of 1665.

What Is A Nursery Rhyme?

“Nursery rhymes” is a term which describes songs and poems traditionally used for children around the world. These nursery rhymes can be in the form of poems or songs, and many teach children vital skills such as dexterity, rhyming, mnemonics, and serve as the first introduction children have to language.

While they are not necessarily great literature, their patterns and vocal tones resonate with babies as young as one day old.

Parents who sing these nursery rhymes to their babies in utero actually increase the recognition the baby has of the mother’s voice upon birth.

As children grow, more complex games can be used such as clapping games, where the parent and child clap with the beat of the song. Counting songs will teach children how to count and how to memorize things such as days of the week.

As children get older, they can be introduced to riddles where metaphors are used, or fables, where a moral is taught.

What Is The Oldest Nursery Rhyme?

The oldest recorded nursery rhyme dates from the 16th Century when rhymes and lullabies began to be recorded in literature.

Lullabies and nursery song however have been sung to babies since humans began. It is an innate human expression of tenderness and love from mother to her baby.

The most popular nursery rhymes actually date back to the 18th century and the early 19th century in Britain.  In North America, the first nursery rhymes were not introduced until the mid-1700s.

An example of good nursery rhymes are;-

Brahms Lullaby and Goodnight

Rock a Bye Baby

Hush Little Baby

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Golden Slumbers

While some evidence exists that a handful were older than that, they were often used as a means of spreading news to others or making remarks about the current leaders.

It was not until the Victorian society emerged that the notion of childhood was revered with longing, as though being a child was “the good old days”.

After that, many of the popular nursery rhymes to date were officially recorded and shared with children.

Nursery rhymes and lullabies are still used today as a means of bonding between a child and their parent or caregiver.

What families may not realize is that nursery rhymes are used around the world. There is a universal appeal to them that continues to make them popular. They are part of a long standing oral tradition to pass stories down from generation to generation.

Whether children realize it or not, they do remember the rhymes and the vocal patterns as they age. Once they start school, the foundation that these nursery rhymes established actually increases their reading and writing skills.  It makes it easier for children to recognize words that sound the same, and determine their similar spelling.

Across all social and economic groups, the early use of nursery rhymes increases test scores for children once they reach school age.

The cognitive and developmental benefits are well worth singing to a child early on, but most importantly, it is the emotional bond that is created between singer and child that is worth everything.


What Are The Origins of Lullabies?

The term “lullaby” in English is derived from a combination of three popular sounds used by nurses and mothers to calm their children: “lu”, “la”, and “bye”. Original lullabies were recorded in written sources incidentally. The oldest to ever be found in written text is the lullaby used by Roman nurses, which was recorded in a scholium on Persuis.

It goes as follows: “lalla, lalla, lalla, aut dormi, aut lacta”.

The oldest songs for children, of which any records can be found, are lullabies.

These are songs meant to help children sleep. Lullabies  have been discovered in every culture on earth.

If you examine medieval English lullabies, the text is often associated with the birth of Jesus. Contemporary lullabies have text such as “lullay, my liking, my dere son, my sweting”.

Today, many of the lullabies used come from the 17th century. Songs such as “Rock-a-bye, baby on a tree top” is not found in written records until it was printed in 1765 by John Newbery.

In the 13th century, a French poem was recorded which taught the numbered days of the week to children. It was similar to the poem “thirty days hath September”. In the Middle Ages, some records were kept of short rhyming songs for children which were considered marginalia. During the middle of the 16th century, these poems and songs were recorded as plays in England.

Many of the popular nursery rhymes we use today were not even written down until the end of the 18th century, when a mass movement of publishing children’s book grew.

Of course, this is not to say that nursery rhymes did not exist before then, as there is some evidence that certain rhymes existed around the 16th century.

There were two English Collections published before 1744 which contained songs that were soon after referred to as “Tommy Thumb’s Songs”. The first book was titled “Tommy Thumb’s Song Book” and the sequel was published with the title “Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book”.

It was in 1765 that John Newbery compiled English rhymes such as Sonnets for the Cradle or Mother Goose’s Melody. This book is the first written record of many of the traditional rhymes used today. The rhymes seem to originate from a myriad of sources including historical events, pagan rituals, ballads, proverbs, drinking songs, riddles, and Mummers’ plays. Nearly half of the rhymes which today are regarded as “traditional” English rhymes were not actually known until the middle of the 18th century.

By the 19th century, collections of these rhymes spread around the world, particularly to the United States. During this time, the origin of newer rhymes is well known.

Some of the earliest folk song collectors at the time also collected nursery rhymes. Since then many publications on the matter have made their way to press including The Nursery Rhymes of England which was publish in 1842, as well as Popular Rhymes and Tales which was published in 1849, and A Book of Nursery Songs which was published in 1895.


Nursery Rhyme Revision Attempts

Throughout the world several attempts have been made to revise the current popular songs, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes. In the late 18th century there is strong evidence of this with the song “Little Robin Redbreast”, which was cleaned up for a younger audience. In the late 19th  century, some concerns were raised about current crime which is what led to publishers in the United States such as Samuel Goodrich and Jacob Abbot to clean up many of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

Some organizations concerned themselves with ridding nursery rhymes of their more violent elements. One such organization was the British Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform. It was argued against by psychoanalysts who felt that in changing the nursery rhymes, the usefulness of the rhymes was taken away and they no longer helped children to deal with violence and death in an imaginative manner – not that children have any idea what nursery rhymes are really about anyway!

By the end of the 20th century, the notion of revising nursery rhymes was associated with being politically correct.

Many reform attempts based on being politically correct did not change anything substantial. In fact, continued changes were often made in a lighthearted manner such as that of Felix Dennis whose 2006 book is titled When Jack Sued Jill—Nursery Rhymes for Modern Times. There was continued controversy in Britain back in 1986 when the song “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” was up for revision due to its clear racism. However, arguments were made that it was not racially dubious and instead was just a rhyming exercise meant for children.

Part of the reason that changing the stories was argued against was founded in the benefits that these nursery rhymes afford children. Things such as “baa, baa, black sheep” could not truly be changed to something like “baa, baa, rainbow sheep” without losing some of the cognitive benefits it affords to children. Nursery rhymes give children improved imagination skills.

They paint different mental pictures of places and things, in a world where nothing is impossible. By changing the words and taking away the rhyming schemes, the nursery rhymes would be changed and with them, the imaginative skills that children might otherwise develop.

In addition, nursery rhymes give children improved memory skills. The repeated exposure to certain syllables and patterns is what helps children to memorize the rhymes and then recite them. This is an entertaining exercise that lays the foundation for effective memory throughout the life of the child.

But changing the words in these famous nursery rhymes would in fact change the patterns and the repetition, which takes away from the memory skills that the children might have otherwise cultivated in listening to them.


What Are Different Types of Nursery Rhymes?

“Nursery Rhymes” is a rather generic term which actually covers a multitude of poems which are directed at children. Nursery rhymes can cover lullabies, riddles, counting games, and even rhymed fables, all of which introduce children to allegorical uses of languages, as well as rhythmic uses of languages, and mnemonic uses of languages.


Lullabies are often the first poems that babies hear. They are often calming, soft, and repetitive songs that parents sing to their babies in order to help them sleep. Some of the most popular lullabies include “Hush, Little Baby” and “Rock-a-bye Baby”.

Fingers and Toes

Some babies are taught early on with finger and toe games. These are nursery rhymes accompanied by tactile motions. The motions integrate and teach dexterity of the fingers or toes. Two of the most popular examples of these nursery rhymes include “This Little Piggy” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”.

Clapping Songs

Then there are clapping songs. These are actual songs, which are designed to be accompanied by clapping between the children and the parents. The clapping actually marks the rhythm of each poem. One of the most popular clapping songs is “Pat-a-Cake, Pat-a-Cake, Baker’s Man”.

Counting Songs

There are some nursery rhymes which are presented as counting songs, meant to teach children how they can count using mnemonics for number names or rhymes. Two of the most popular examples of these nursery rhymes include “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” and “This Old Man”.


Still, some nursery rhymes are presented in the form of riddles. They describe the answer to a question in the form of metaphors or puns. In the case of riddles, the nursery rhyme will describe a subject, which the hearer is supposed to guess. One of the best examples of this type of nursery rhyme is “Humpty Dumpty” where the subject is described in the form of an egg.


Lastly, there are some nursery rhymes that present themselves in the form of a fable. Fables deal with puns and metaphors in much the same manner as riddles, but fables actually serve as a narrative that tells a story. Many fables teach a moral or they use animals to better represent people to children. Take the nursery rhyme “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” for example. This nursery rhyme is considered a fable to some degree, because the spider serves as a representation of a person, and the fable teaches a lesson on perseverance.

 Nursery Rhymes Videos

These days many sources of nursery rhymes and lullabies are available including streaming and nursery rhymes videos.

Why The Universal Appeal of Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes?


For centuries lullabies have been used to soothe children and cultivate emotional bonds between parents and children. In fact before human language even evolved the appeal of lullabies was prominent. Lullabies soothe and comfort children and reinforce an emotional bond between the caregiver or parent and child. As it turns out this universal appeal is founded in actual science too.

  • Children between the ages of one and four years old develop cognitive skills such as the concepts of color, movement, shape, and size.
  • Nursery rhymes enhance the development of these cognitive skills, making children more active and receptive.
  • Nursery rhymes also aid verbal skills.
  • As children try and recite their childhood nursery rhymes, they are actually attempting to express themselves in a coherent manner.
  • This actually makes children much less self-conscious and helps to become confident speakers.
  • When children are read nursery rhymes, it improves their motor skills.
  • In order to act out certain nursery rhymes, children need hand gestures, different movements, balance, coordination, and facial expressions. All of this helps the children to develop better motor skills.
  • By reading or telling nursery rhymes to children, it also forces them to develop better listening skills.
  • Children need to pay attention not only to you but to the rhyme so that they can make sense of the story. This lays the foundation for great listening skills that they will never forget.

On that note, the use of nursery rhymes with small children also develops reading skills. Even if the child isn’t yet old enough to read, listening to their parents tell nursery rhymes will help them to learn the alphabet, recognize similar sounding words, understand corresponding sounds, and recognize different syllables.

This lays the foundation for top of the line reading skills later in life.

Reading nursery rhymes also exposes children to language skills.

They learn more complex words such as nimble, puddle, together, clock, mulberry, eagle, spool, and more. These words are not part of a child’s regular vocabulary and as a result, it helps them to learn new words and the proper pronunciation for said words. This makes them a better speaker at a younger age.

By teaching children nursery rhymes together, they can cultivate improved social skills. Children might recite these nursery rhymes together in groups, at school or in a care group, and as a result they will form a bond with one another, realizing that they share traits with other children.

This will help to make the child more confident and outgoing.

In addition to this, the regular use of nursery rhymes will give children improved auditory skills. The melody and the rhythm that is inherent in all of these nursery rhymes will sensitize children to sound.

Children can catch the repetitive sounds in the patterned phonemic and phonetic rhymes. This forces them to think about notes, tones, and tunes and the manner in which they are organized in languages.

What Is The Real Meaning of Nursery Rhymes?

The meanings behind of nursery rhymes have been argued for centuries. Literally. Many people swear that nursery rhymes have dark and hidden meanings.

This is in part true, especially when one considers that nursery rhymes were not initially intended for children and were rather, a means of spreading news or saying ill things about someone.

It was John Bellenden Ker who lived from 1765 until 1842 during which time he wrote four books which argued that the original English nursery rhymes were originally written in “Low Saxon” which many believe to be an early form of Dutch. He claimed that he had been the one to translate the text into modern English and in doing so, revealed that there was a strong tendency throughout the text for anti-clericalism.

It was Katherine Elwes who published the book in 1930 The Real Personages of Mother Goose. It was in this publication that the idea about a link between nursery rhymes and historical events or people was put forth.

She linked some of the most famous nursery rhymes, which we still use today, to real people, without any real evidence.

She had assumed that these nursery rhymes were a type of coded message, such as propaganda, covert protests, or narratives and she rejected the idea that they could have been written down for the sake of entertainment.

The figure used in this text—that of Mother Goose—is actually historic in and of itself. This figure has appeared in the Christmas pantomime which was performed in England called Mother Goose. The stories of Mother Goose are actually what formed the foundation for many of the classic pantomimes in Britain.

This character is often depicted in book illustrations and literature as an older woman wearing a shawl and a tall hat, which is a costume almost identical to that worn by a peasant in Wales. There are other instances where the character is a literal goose.

But it was not Katherine Elwes who was first credited with writing about the character. In fact, it was Charles Perrault back in 1695 who wrote a collection of fairy tales under the name of his son. The name when translated from the original French reads “My Mother Goose”. This is the authenticated point at which the Mother Goose stories were started.

His works were translated into English in 1729 and contained such as pieces as Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, as narrated by Mother Goose.

This character was first published in conjunction with English nursery rhymes by John Newbery during the 1760’s. Ever since then, Mother Goose was associated with poetry and children’s books. Her character made an appearance in the second volume of John Bellenden Ker’s books as well.

Why Are Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies Still So Popular?

When parents or caregivers sing nursery rhymes to children, they become part of a historic process of sharing stories through the generations. The stories shared in modern nursery rhymes date back, in some cases, to the Middle Ages. In the case of many nursery rhymes, it is nearly impossible to determine the actual origin, but many have worked tirelessly to make educated guesses based on historical evidence.

Many of the most famous nursery rhymes have undergone myriad of changes throughout the centuries, leaving them obscurely referencing their ancient pasts.

Many of the nursery rhymes we use today were actually not intended for children. They were part of the oral-based society, meant as a means of spreading coded rumors about the then-authority figures, relaying news, or working out a moral dilemma through song. The existing nonsensical rhymes were part of the tradition too, used to make reference or talk about current events. I

t was during the 19th century that the Victorian society romanticized the past and all that childhood once was, after which nursery rhymes were written down and taught to children.

Many of the poems of old may not seem relevant when text is reviewed alone. References to kings and queens may not seem relevant in a world based on computers and television.

So why do parents still use Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies ?

Because they remain an integral part of our past and they have been proven effective in cognitive development and emotional bonding.

Nursery rhymes are quite good for the brain. The repetition and storytelling teach children about rhyming and language.

It improves memory which can then be applied to all manner of activities.

It also introduces children to literacy for the first time.

It can be a visual and an oral experience simultaneously when the nursery rhymes are read to the children.

They are also a means of preserving a common culture between all generations. It allows children the opportunity to participate in the old tradition of sharing and storytelling which in and of itself brings people together.

Nursery rhymes are of course a great group activity for schools and churches and other after-school care centers.

They allow even shy children to feel confident about singing and dancing with their peers because the nursery rhyme is quite fun and simple to grasp.

This builds confidence in children immediately and allows them to form a connection between the words,  the rhythm,  and the movement.

And of course, nursery rhymes are fun. Even if children do not know the literal meaning of the text, they no likely remember them and the way they sounded.

Children did not need a deeper meaning for their nursery rhymes to be an effective way of sharing language and joy.


Benefits of Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies For Children

Like most parents, if you hear a baby crying you will do what parents across the world have done for generations. You will calm them with anything in your power including feeding, rocking, and singing.

Why does singing nursery rhymes to babies work so well in calming them down?

Because babies can discriminate rhythmic patterns.

Babies, from the day they are born, can detect differences in rhythmic patterns. This was discovered in 2009 by a group of researchers in Hungary and the Netherlands who measured the brain waves of day-old infants listening to rhymes.

That means that the ability to discriminate these patterns is innate. But that is not the only proven link between music and babies. In fact, studies now indicate that infant’s development is improved with music.

Singing to infants is the first lesson they receive in language and in doing so, you can help to prevent future language learning problems.

Infant-directed music is actually a type of communication between children and their caregivers or parents which involves a manner of sing-song speaking, play songs, and lullabies. Around the world this is done characterized by singing or speaking with an emotional voice quality, a slower tempo, or a raised pitch.

This method of singing is what is referred to as “infant-directed singing”. It is important because there is an evolutionary link between child develop and this type of singing.

In fact, research indicates that the use of this form of music will improve the mood of an infant, regulate their arousal level, and strengthen the emotional bond between the child and the person singing.  By regulating arousal and improving mood, this also facilitates sleeping and feeding among infants and thereby improves their development.

When lullabies or nursery rhymes are sung to children, they need to be just that: sung. The children should never be exposed to music via headphones, because the ears of an infant are highly sensitive and headphones can cause permanent damage. So whether you are a great singer meant for the stage, or you are tone deaf, you should sing to the child.

The baby does not care how talented you are.

In fact, they prefer your voice and the connection to your singing, no matter how bad you might think

Infants in utero can actually be sung to at 25 weeks. This is when the auditory signals begin to process sound and also why a newborn is already familiar with their mother’s voice. Singing to a fetus while pregnant helps the baby to become familiar not just with your voice but with the nursery rhymes you are using.

As a result, when the child hears them later in life, the songs will have an immediate calming effect. Singing to children with nursery rhymes is, in effect, one of the best ways in which parents can connect to their babies and help to expedite cognitive, emotional, and language development.

How Do Nursery Rhymes Help Develop Rhyming and Reading?

Nursery rhymes offer myriad of cognitive benefits for children, especially when they are used often. One of these benefits is improved reading skills.

Utilizing nursery rhymes early on with a child will expose them to the foundation skills required for reading later in life.

Rhyming is a unique way to introduce children and toddlers into stories and language that they will be exposed to later in life.

Rhymes expose children to the many benefits of literacy. By exposing children to nursery rhymes early on, parents can help their child progress in terms of reading when the time comes.

Research indicates that children who are already familiar with rhyming are better able to detect phonetic constituents of words when it comes time to learn to read.

That means children at a younger age will be able to recognize that the word “bat” rhymes with “cat”.

They make this connection by detecting the word segment of “at”. Children who are sensitive to rhyming is better able to identify the sounds which rhyming words have in common, and their shared spelling sequence they have when they are written.

This enables children to learn how to read better and faster.

When children are made aware that certain words share certain sounds, it prepares them to learn that these words often share spelling too. This is easily taught with nursery rhymes where similar sounding words are used repetitively.

Studies show that children who are exposed to nursery rhymes as infants are much more sensitive to rhymes as they learn to read.

They are better able to infer things such as “light” and “fight” might be spelled similarly. This means that for every new word a child learns, it lays the foundation for a multitude of similar sounding words and the ability to learn them faster.

Overall, good rhyming skills will make for good reading skills.

Other longitudinal studies indicate that class, memory ability, and general intelligence do not affect this; if a child has knowledge of rhymes it will help them to progress with reading faster in school regardless of those factors. The children also stand to receive higher test scores in reading and spelling.

Overall, it is imperative that parents from any background give their child a head start when it comes to reading and writing by introducing them to nursery rhymes at an early age.

Rhyming activities and songs should be used in all households around the world.

How Do Nursery Rhymes Helps Your Childs Education?

Nursery rhymes and lullabies are a huge aid in your child’sdevelopment. Learning nursery rhymes and lullabies  increases memory, improves reading and writing skills, and increases spatial reasoning, all of which help to ensure greater success in the core subjects in school.

So not only is it important to expose children to nursery rhymes before they enter school but in school and in day care facilities they can utilize nursery rhymes as well.

When nursery rhymes are integrated into day care centers and schools, they help children to master language skills faster.

Children who use nursery rhymes in education are presented with new vocabulary in a format that enables them to remember it better. Repetition, tunes, rhythm, and actions all help children master language as a group. As the new vocabulary becomes more familiar to the children, they will start joining in and singing or acting along with the caregiver or teacher and experimenting with the formation of sounds individually.

Most children will say their first words around the age of one, but with exposure to nursery rhymes early on in day care, church day care, and/or at home, children will start experimenting with word combination and short sentences early on.

Exposure to nursery rhymes and lullabies  in education also improves cognitive development.

When children hear nursery rhymes regularly, it develops better memory skills. Their brains will start to store the words they can make out and the tunes they like hearing.

Around the age of three they will start to chant some of the nursery rhymes to themselves. You can teach children counting skills using an entertaining tune and teach them basic reading skills when they are forced to follow a simple story with a simple character.

In addition to this, the utilization of nursery rhymes in education will improve social and emotional development for children. Participating in nursery rhymes gives children social interaction, whether they have to hold hands or look at other children in the face. It keeps them in close contact with other people and helps to teach social skills.

As children age and remember the rhymes better, it acts as a social tool they can share with other children or siblings or family.

Different nursery rhymes will introduce different emotions to children as well.

Lastly, integrating nursery rhymes into education will teach children physical skills. It is an effective way for children to practice their fine motor skills. Children can learn how to point out the parts of their body, how to move their hands like spiders, and how to move their body to music.

Never underestimate the powerful effect listening to and learning lullabies has on your baby. Start singing and plating them from day on and give your baby a head start in learning and a fun time too.