As a song plays a baby’s heartbeat slows and oxygen saturation increases. Effects like that were among the findings of a study released in April on the use of music as medicine.
Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City led the research conducted in 11 hospitals. The study found that live music can be valuable to premature babies. As a part of the study, music therapists helped parents transform their favorite tunes into lullabies.
The researchers concluded that live music, whether it is played or sung, helps slow infants’ heartbeats, calm their breathing, improve sucking behaviors important for feeding, aid sleep and promote states of quiet alertness.
By decreasing stress and stabilizing vital signs, music can allow infants to devote more energy to normal development say doctors and researchers.
And while the effects may be subtle, small improvements can be significant in preemie babies because of their frailty. Premature births have increased since 1990 to nearly 500,000 a year: one of every nine children born in the United States is born prematurely.
Some tiny preemies are too small and fragile to be held and comforted by human touch, and many are often fussy and show other signs of stress. Other common complications include immature lungs, eye disease, problems with sucking, and sleeping and alertness difficulties.
There is growing research on music and preterm babies. Some hospitals find music as effective as, and safer than, sedating infants before procedures like heart sonograms and brain monitoring. Some neonatologists say babies receiving music therapy leave hospitals sooner, which can aid development and family bonding and save money.
However, many insurers refuse to pay for music therapy because of doubts that it results in any lasting medical improvement. Some doctors say the music works best at relieving babies’ stress and helping parents bond with infants too sick to go home.
More than two dozen U.S. hospitals offer music therapy in their newborn intensive care units and its popularity is growing, said Joanne Loewy, a music therapist who directs a music and medicine program at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
Therapists in the study played special small drums to mimic womb sounds and timed the rhythm to match the infants’ heartbeats. The music appeared to slow the infants’ heartbeats, calm their breathing, and improve sucking and sleeping, Loewy said.
Preemies’ Music Therapy Featured on American Idol
Preemies’ music therapy was recently featured on an episode of the popular TV show “American Idol,” when show finalist Kree Harrison watched a therapist working with a premature baby at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“Music is such a huge part of our lives and to do something like this, make it a sort of healing process, is a cool thing,” Harrison said on the April 25 episode.
Music therapists agree that soothing rhythmic sounds of music can mimic womb sounds, providing a comforting environment for preemies. Soozie Cotter-Schaufele, a music therapist who sings and plays a small harp or guitar, believes the sounds help calm tiny babies while they’re undergoing painful medical procedures.
Cotter-Schaufele said she recently heard from a woman whose daughter was born prematurely at the hospital where she worked six years ago. During the hospital stay, the therapist played the 1960s folk song “Today” for the infant. The mother reported her daughter “‘still loves that song; she didn’t learn that song from me, she learned it from you.”
Participating doctors in the research say music helps decrease babies’ stress response and allows them to devote more of their oxygen and calories to developing and growing.
One reason may be that music is organized, purposeful sound amid the unpredictable, over stimulating noise of neonatal units. “Loud machinery, medical rounds coming through with 12 people, alarms on ventilators and pumps, the hiss of oxygen,” said Helen Shoemark, a music researcher in Australia. “Sound can be damaging. But meaningful noise is important for a baby’s brain development.”
Scientists are far from done determining music’s impact, and there are certainly those who are skeptical about its medical value.
Dr. Manoj Kumar, a neonatologist in Edmonton, Alberta, said that while “studies have shown a benefit in heart rate and respiratory rate,” it is unclear whether that prompts clinical improvements, like removing oxygen or feeding tubes sooner, questions that the Pediatrics study did not tackle.
It did not matter whether parents or music therapists sang, or whether babies were in incubators or held. Parents don’t even have to buy or play instruments; they can be taught to mimic them.
At Beth Israel, Ms. Zalkin, who said she had discovered that she was pregnant only a week before giving birth in March, said it can feel overwhelming to suddenly have a baby, let alone one who weighed 2 ½ pounds when born. She joined Beth Israel’s music therapy program after the study ended.
“With the beeping and the scary noises and the people running around, that’s something that I can’t change,” Ms. Zalkin said. She chose “Eight Days a Week,” she said, because “I grew up on the Beatles.” The music therapist, Angela Ferraiuolo-Thompson, changed it to a slow waltz, eventually eliminating the actual lyrics but adding “Baby Hudson” and “aah.”
Recently, Ms. Ferraiuolo-Thompson, strumming a guitar, directed Ms. Zalkin to sing slower to soothe Hudson’s hiccups.
“It changes the way he’s breathing and I’m breathing, it changes his behavior,” Ms. Zalkin said. “Music therapy, it’s something you can do.”
Singing to your child is nothing new. The human race has been singing or playing music to soothe uncomfortable babies—before and after birth—for countless years.
The dedicated pregnancy physicians at All About Women encourages you to make music and song a regular part of your pregnancy as well as after the birth or your precious little one.