Music therapy and preemies

Music plays a central role in so many people’s lives, and for quite some time researchers have been studying whether or not it can be practically helpful as well as emotionally.

One example involves premature babies in the NICU. As the theory goes, music just might be powerful enough to help preemies breathe, sleep, and self-soothe more effectively while in the NICU. But just how much of this theory is true?

The benefits

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that three sounds are particularly helpful for premature babies and their parents during their stay in the NICU.

  • The sounds of an ocean disk, which is an instrument that has metal balls inside it that move and make a ‘whoosh’ sound
  • Sound from a gato box, a wooden instrument which, when plucked, mimics the soft sounds of the mother’s heartbeat
  • lullaby sung out loud by one or both of the baby’s parents

Normally, the ocean disk and gato box are played live in the NICU by trained music therapists, who can match the instrument’s rhythms to the baby’s heartbeat. Researchers found that on days when babies were exposed to these sounds, babies had better success with feeding, longer and deeper sleep patterns, fewer and shorter crying episodes throughout the day, and better oxygen intake than on days that they weren’t exposed to music. There definitely seem to be some positive health benefits from exposing babies to any of these three sounds in the NICU.

The limits

Even with those benefits, not all sound in the NICU is created equal! Too much sound can damage a baby’s hearing, and it’s very important to protect a baby’s hearing at this age. It’s possible that other kinds of musical intervention, especially loud ones, would be bad for a preemie’s hearing.

There also isn’t enough evidence to support the idea that music can help all babies in the NICU. Some sick babies in the NICU haven’t been shown to benefit directly from music.

So while certain sounds have been proven to be beneficial for babies in the NICU, there are limitations to the kind of sounds that should be played for preemies. More research is needed before researchers can safely use music as therapy for all preemies in the NICU.

The bottom line 

Certain types of sound and music have been shown to have positive effects on many preemies in the NICU. Lullabies sung by parents are especially helpful and encourage bonding between babies and their caregivers. Sounds from instruments like the ocean disk and the gato box can help soothe some babies and improve their sleep and feeding patterns.

More research is needed to determine whether or not music soothes all preemies, and unfortunately, you won’t be able to get your preemie hooked on your favorite artist directly while they are in the NICU. Only certain music and sounds are safe! But overall, it looks like there are some solid benefits to exposing a preemie to certain sounds and music in the NICU.

  • “Music therapy can comfort and soothe premature infants and parents.” American Academy of Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, April 15 2013. Web.
  • Ashley L Hodges, PhD, WHNP-BC, Lynda Law Wilson, RN, PhD, FAAN. “Preterm infants’ responses to music: An integrative literature review.” Southern Nursing Research Society. Southern Online Journal of Nursing Research, Sep 2010. Web.
  • Joanne Loewy, Kristen Stewart, Ann-Marie Dassler, Aimee Telsey, Peter Homel. “The effects of music therapy on vital signs, feeding, and sleep in premature infants.” American Academy of Pediatrics. (5): 902-918. Web. May 2013.
  • Kathi J. Kemper, M.D., M.P.H. and Craig Hamilton, Ph.D. “Live Harp Music Reduces Activity and Increases Weight Gain in Stable Premature Infants.” Journal of Alternative and Contemporary Medicine. 14(10): 1185–1186. Web. Dec 2008.
  • S. Amon, A. Shapsa, L. Forman, R. Regev, S. Bauer, I. Litmanoviz, T. Dolfin. “Live music is beneficial to preterm infants in the neonatal intensive care unit environment.” Birth. 33(2): 131-136. Web. May 2006.
  • Susan Hatters Friedman, MD1, Ronna S. Kaplan, MA, MT-BC, NMT2, Miriam B. Rosenthal, MD1,2, and Patty Console, MT-BC2. “Music Therapy in Perinatal Psychiatry: Use of Lullabies for Pregnant and Postpartum Women with Mental Illness.” Music and Medicine. 2(4) 219-225. Web. Sep 2010.
  • Suzanna A. Peczeniuk-Hoffman. “Music Therapy in the NICU: Interventions and Techniques in Current Practice and a Survey of Experience and Designation Implications.” ScholarWorks at WMU. Western Michigan University, Dec 2012. Web.

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