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Live Music Soothes the Premature Baby, and Their Parents

Update Date: Apr 15, 2013 12:02 PM EDT

Parents have sung lullabies to their children for as long as music has existed. A recent study shows that it may have some medical benefit, especially for premature infants. Researchers from the Beth Israel Medical Center found that singing lullabies to premature babies helped improve their vital signs. That is good news for the parents of the nearly 1 in 9 babies in the United States who are born prematurely.

"Historically, premature infants were thought to be best off left alone in a quiet, closed incubator with no stimulation," study author Joanne Loewy, the director of Beth Israel's Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, said to Health Day. "In more recent times, we're seeing that the right kind of stimulation - particularly live, interactive music - can enhance babies' neurological function and increase their quiet-alert state. It helps them through those tough moments...the more we can regulate the sound environment, the better they're going to fare."

The study examined three different types of music therapy performed with 272 infants who had been born weeks early and who were small for their gestational age; all of them had issues like respiratory problems and sepsis. For two weeks, three times a week, music therapists visited the 11 neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) with devices called Remo ocean discs, which mimic the sounds of the ocean, and gato boxes, which mimic the sounds of the womb and the heartbeat. Music therapists or their parents also sang songs to the babies, either ones that the parents had chosen, or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star". All of the music therapies were slowed down to synchronize with the babies' heart and breath patterns.

The babies saw improvement with all three of the therapies in different ways. According to Reuters, the babies' heart rates dropped by one to two beats per minute, on average, while they listened to music and the heartbeat sounds, and just after they heard the sounds of the womb. Sucking rates improved when they heard the heartbeat sounds, and sleep patterns were most improved with the womb-like noses. Babies exposed to the ocean-disc sounds had the best blood-oxygen levels and quiet-alert states.

With all three therapies, parents and babies experienced less stress in the NICU. In addition, babies who were exposed to music therapy left the hospital earlier than babies who went without. Researchers say that the treatment is not that expensive; it can be about $65 per hour for a music therapist, but therapy with a premature baby can last about 10 to 15 minutes.

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.

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