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“Singing” Pacifier Can Help Premature Infants Learn to Feed

Update Date: Feb 18, 2014 04:04 PM EST

Several studies have found the importance of adult speech for premature infants' cognitive development. A recent study reported that adult talk could improve language-learning skills for premature babies. Now, a new study is reporting that hearing a mother sing could help preemies learn to feed.

"People are finding out that the influence of parental voice in the NICU is important, so these results are not surprising," said senior author Dr. Nathalie Maitre of Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville, TN reported by Reuters Health. "This is yet another example that parents really do make a difference to their babies' development."

For this study, the researchers tested the effects of using a pacifier-activated device that can record the singing voice of a mother. The researchers wanted to see if the device, when given to the premature babies at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), could help reduce their hospital stay time and their dependence on a feeding tube.

"Premature babies have to figure out how to coordinate sucking, swallowing their own saliva and breathing. It's an incredibly difficult task for babies, and it's tiring," said Maitre according to Philly. "Non-nutritive sucking [with a pacifier] has been used in neonatal intensive-care units for the past 10 years, and it helps babies' sucking improve."

The researchers recruited around 100 premature infants who were born at weeks 34 to 36. Full term babies are born around weeks 39 to 41.The preemies were required to stay at the NICU and were given pacifiers as well as frequent skin-to-skin contact. During their stay, they were also gradually introduced to breastfeeding. For half of the sample set, the infants received the recorded pacifier device of their mother singing "Hush Little Baby." The preemies had the device for 15 minutes a day for a total of five days.

After the five-day experiment, the researchers found that both groups of babies gained around the same amount of weight. The recorded pacifier device group, however, learned to eat faster than the other group. This group drank in two milliliters of fortified milk per minute, whereas the other group without the recorded pacifier drank a little less than one milliliter per minute. The recorded pacifier group also ate without a feeding tube for six and a half times per day whereas the other group only ate without a feeding tube for four times a day. In the end, the recorded pacifier group used a feeding tube for an average of 31 days, which is seven days shorter than the other group.

"We know that newborn infants can recognize their mother's voice because they can hear it in the womb and have ample opportunity to learn what it sounds like," said Amy Needham, who studies infant development at Vanderbilt University but was not a part of this study. "Hearing their mother's voice when they suck properly on the pacifier helps them develop proper sucking behavior because the mother's voice acts as a 'reinforcer,'"

The findings were published in Pediatrics.

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