"With all the high-tech things we can do for babies, there are also many low-tech things." Dr. Lance Parker, Westchester Maria Fareri Children's Hospital
How does live, responsive music, like soothing sounds and lullabies, affect the health of pre-term infants? In order to explore this question, scientists from Beth Israel Hospital brought "live music" into 11 Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU). Then they carefully examined the physiological responses of pre-term infants. Music and sound consisted of parent-sung lullabies and rhythmic, soothing, percussion instruments. The researchers assumed that live music was superior to recorded music which is less responsive and may actually contribute to overstimulation in the NICU.
They found that responsive lullabies and soothing sounds in the NICU can slow heart rate and calm breathing. Sound and lullabies may also improve feeding behaviors, and increase quiet-alert states which are best for learning. Lullabies and sound also helped lower parent stress levels. Effects were subtle, but for pre-term infants small improvements can be significant. For example, even small improvements in feeding behaviors can promote weight gain which is critical to the health of a pre-term infant. While this is preliminary research, additional investigation is warranted regarding methods of of responding to the infant's immediate state and adjusting the enviornment to make it more comfortable and predictible.
Researchers speculated that since music is organized and predictable, it may reduce stress and free the infant to devote more resources (e.g., calories, oxygen) to developing and growing. Live music can respond to an infant’s current state. If the baby is falling asleep, a parent can sing more softly and slowly. Music and sound may also moderate the confusion of noise and activity in a typical NICU. The authors also emphasized the importance of using certified music therapists to assure informed, intentional, therapeutic use of live sound and lullabies.
Loewy, J., Stewart, K., Dassler A-M, Telsey, A., and Homel, P. (2013) The effects of music therapy on vital signs, feeding, and sleep in premature infants. Pediatrics peds.2012-1367; published ahead of print April 15, 2013, doi:10.1542/peds.2012-1367
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Grace M. Libardo Alvarez M.S, CCC-SLP Program Manager Providence Speech and Hearing Center Orange, CA