Earlier this winter at Siena House, a homeless shelter for young mothers in the South Bronx, Crystal spoke softly to her five kids. “This song is for you,” she said, and began crooning a lullaby she wrote (along with the musician Daniel Levy), titled “You’re the Reason Why.”

Accompanied by a guitar and violin, she sang, “You’re the reason why I smile. You’re the reason why I sing. You’re the reason I’m alive. You’re my all, my everything.” In delicate couplets, Crystal expressed a mother’s love for her children — sentiments we often associate with a woman leaning over a crib in a baby’s bedroom, not new moms passing through homeless shelters, jails, housing projects and adult education programs who are barely able to hold their families together.

Since 2011, the Lullaby Project, a Carnegie Hall program (part of its larger Musical Connections initiative) that takes music’s transformative power outside gilded concert halls and into neglected communities throughout New York City and across the nation, has paired more than 300 homeless or incarcerated mothers with professional musicians to create a musical experience for their child. Over three sessions, new and expectant moms write, compose and record a short lullaby for their newborns. For young women who may have experienced their own difficult childhood, the project is a chance to give a name to all the raw emotions that come with motherhood: the regrets from their own lives, the bright wishes for their children and, most importantly, the bottomless affection welling up in these new mothers’ hearts.

A mother and her child participate in Musical Connections at New York City’s Siena House.

The Lullaby Project is not simply a chance for a mom to pen something lasting and meaningful; the song also creates a vital bond that’s key for the child’s development, says Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, a researcher evaluating the project. Singing a lullaby helps to create a secure attachment between mother and child, which studies have shown often leads to exploration, better social relations and emotional well-being in later life, Wolf says. Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project is one of the few programs that encourages that broader neonatal development, rather than society’s limited emphasis on preventing infant mortality or disease.

“When we fund maternal and infant healthcare, it’s chiefly in a disease framework: ‘How do you keep mothers from smoking, drinking, or having soda? How do you ensure that kids, postnatally, get vaccinations?’ Those are epidemiological issues. What we don’t pay any attention to, yet is no less critical, is the other side of prenatal and postnatal care: ‘How do we say to young mothers who are maybe on their own, maybe pregnant in neighborhoods that are not particularly safe or in the shelter system, that you are about to be a mother? How do we tell them you are an agent in charge of your own and this baby’s growth and development?’” Wolf asks. This initiative, she adds, is “building young people to do the job they are about to engage in.”

For a generation of children, despite all the turbulence of growing up in poverty, falling asleep in mom’s arms suddenly sounds much sweeter.

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