Rock a Bye Baby Nursery Rhyme- Lyrics, History, Video, Lesson Plans & More

When you were a child, you probably listened to Rock A Bye Baby as your parents sang it to you rocking you to sleep.

But have you ever taken the time to think about the lyrics and what they could have meant? Why does the cradle fall for example and what of the person who wrote or came up with the famous rhyme?

That’s what I’ll be delving into in this article and whether the song has a more sinister meaning, like some other nursery rhymes.

animation picture of baby crying next to a cradle

Or could it be a simple song to which people have attached a sinister meaning?

Let’s find out.


Rock A Bye has kept most of the original lyrics with a few additions. Depending on the version, you’ll hear lyrics added to the below verse’s spine to make the song longer.

Lyrics for Rock a Bye Baby as Sung Today

Rock A Bye Baby, On the Tree Top,
When The Wind Blows, The Cradle Will Rock,
When The Bow Breaks, The Cradle Will Fall,
And Down Will Come Baby, Cradle and All

Here is the most common rendition of the song with additional lyrics.

Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree tops
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
Down will come, baby, cradle and all

Baby is drowsing, cozy and fair
Mother sits near in her rocking chair
Forward and back, the cradle she swings
Though baby sleeps, he hears what she sings

Rock-a-bye baby, do not you fear
Never mind, baby, mother is near
Wee little fingers, eyes are shut tight
Now sound asleep – until morning light

Some versions use hush a bye instead of rock a bye.

Full Original Lyrics for Rock a Bye Baby

Below are the original lyrics in the 1791 edition of Mother Goose.  

Hush-a-by baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
Down tumbles baby, cradle and all

A small note accompanied the song in the book: “This may serve as a warning to the proud and ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last.”

The Mother Goose 1916 Version

Rock-a-bye baby, thy cradle is green;
Father’s a nobleman, mother’s a queen;
And Aggy’s a lady and wears a gold ring;
And Johnny’s a drummer and drums for the king.


Who Wrote Rock a Bye Baby?

The famous 18th-century rhyme has no known author or composer. It keeps with having the sketchy pasts most nursery rhymes do. Though the song’s author is unknown, the composer of the melody is Effie I. Canning.

The song’s first print appearance was in a Mother Goose publication of 1765 by John Berry. That version didn’t follow the melody we know today. There’s the likelihood that people would read it as they would a poem.

That was until a young Effie I. Canning came along in the 19th century. She devised an improvised melody that most people can recognize today. She used recollections of the song from the Mother Goose book.

The melody was a simple improvisation Effie created to soothe a crying baby. A Boston publisher published the tune after it impressed her banjo teacher.

Effie wasn’t much impressed by the song, so she used her grandmother’s name for the publishing. She didn’t want any negative publicity to follow her should the song flop.

The song got much following, and we have her to thank for the famous melody.

You’ll notice that the original lyrics start with Hush a Bye, although the song is today sung with the opening words Rock a bye. The two opening words have given the song its name from around 1805.

The words are from Benjamin Tabart’s Songs for the Nursery. Al Johnson’s song Rock a Bye, Your Baby with a Dixie Melody also contributed to the change from Hush a Bye Baby. Since then, there has been an inclination to use rock a bye instead of hush a bye.


Baby with a thought bubble with a baby and a cradle in it

What Does the Nursery Rhyme Rock a Bye Baby Mean?

The words Rock a Bye Baby are meant to mimics the motion of rocking a baby to sleep.

What Does Tree Top Mean?

A tree top is the highest part of any tree.

What is a Cradle?

A cradle is an infant bed with pivot-like structures to enable the gentle movement of the bed.

What’s to rock?

To rock is to gently move forwards and backward, especially with a baby, to soothe them or make them sleep.

In this song, the cradle moves forwards (rocks) from the winds blowing.

What’s a bough?

A bough is a large or major tree branch.

The Difference Between Bough and Bow?

The two words might sound the same, but they are indeed quite different in meaning. A bow is a forward movement of the head or someone’s body, usually to show respect or gratitude. Besides that, it is a thin piece of wood used to play stringed musical instruments, and a weapon used to shoot arrows.

On the other hand, a bough is a large branch of a tree. The two words are often confused with being the same, thanks to their similar pronunciation. However, they couldn’t be any more different in meaning.


picture of mother smiling to a baby

Theories to Explain the Origin of the Song

Every nursery rhyme seems to have a wild theory to explain its origin. It was a long time ago when the songs were written or published.

Therefore, it makes sense for different theories regarding their origin. Several theories explain the significance and origin of the Rock a Bye Baby rhyme.

a) The Death Wish for King James II’s Baby

According to this theory, the song happened in the events after the Glorious Revolution when King James II converted to Catholicism. James had a son in 1688 who many feared would make England a Catholic dynasty.

They thus had a death wish for the child and for there to be a protestant heir to King James II’s throne. According to this theory, the winds refer to the Protestant movement gaining widespread acclaim.

The baby in danger is England and the breaking bough, Stuart’s Monarchy. The footnote at the bottom of the song in the Mother Goose publication further adds fuel to this theory.

b) The Theory of Native Americans

According to some historians, the song came about when pilgrim travelers saw native Americans placing their babies in tree hollows.

The birch-bark trees were the most popular option for this and would hold the babies as the women worked in the fields.

When visiting pilgrims saw this, they thought it strange, which could explain the song’s origin.

c) Betty Kenny, Her 8 Children, and a 2000-Year-old Yew Tree

According to this legend, a woman named Betty Kenny of Shining Cliff Woods Derbyshire, England, inspired the song. She lived with her husband Luke and eight children on a 200-year-old Yew tree.

She would put her babies to sleep in a hollow branch of the tree.

There isn’t a way to prove any of the above theories inspired the song. We can only speculate over what inspired the song.

It could be the song was simply for children’s entertainment and had no allusion to a death wish, a woman and her eight children, or Native Americans.

Are Rock a Bye Baby and The Sick Song The Same?

When you listen to the Sick Song and Rock a Bye Baby, you might think they are the same. They sound the same except for the lyrics that mention different things.

However, the two songs aren’t the same despite sharing a melody and tune. Have a listen and see how close they resemble each other.

While Rock a Bye is an ancient rhyme, the sick song is a more recent composition. Probably the song uses Rock a Bye’s melody and tunes for the ease of rhyme. So, it isn’t a derivative of Rock a Bye.

What Lessons Does Rock a Bye Teach?

Rock a Bye is a simple song with no direct lessons. However, you can use it to entertain a child, since it is integral to their brain development.

The song is an excellent song for making toddlers fall asleep.

Is Rock a Bye Baby in the Public Domain?

Yes, Rock a Bye Baby is a public-domain song. This means that no one has the copyright to it and that if you want to use the song in your work, you can.

(Disclaimer: This is a general–not a legally confirmed fact, and you need to do more research into the laws in your jurisdiction/country to ensure you can use this song)

Today, anything published or copyrighted before 1925 is considered a public domain creation. Rock a Bye has a publishing date of 1765, making it a public-domain song.

But this does not apply to other people’s versions of it–for example, Sean Paul, Clean Bandit, and Anne Marie have a version of the song called Rockabye.

Though the song features certain parts of the famous nursery rhyme, you can’t use or resell it without their permission.

Can You Sing Rock A Bye Baby in Sign Language?

Yes. You can sing Rock a Bye Baby in sign language. Here is a resource to help you do that.


The following is a selection of Lesson Plans inspired by Rock a Bye Baby. You need to click on the images to go to the websites to learn more and download the resources.


What Time Signature is Rock a Bye Baby?

Rock a Bye Baby has a time signature of ¾. It is typically played at 109 BPM (beats per minute), an easy song for any experienced musician to play.


You can also play Rock a Bye Baby with different instruments. I found some resources on YouTube to help you with the playing.


Samantha Bellerose has a Bachelor of Education as well as a Diploma in Performing Arts. She is a mom to four children and is passionate about education and learning. Samantha created Nursery Rhyme Central as the go to place for parents, teachers and carers about all things to do with Nursery Rhymes. She is also the Main Author and creator for websites Dance Parent 101 and Move Dance Learn, where she shares her knowledge and expertise for dance and learning through movement.

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