While preemies fight for their lives in incubators, their parents are both sick with worry and unable to truly bond with the babies through those things that other parents take for granted. Take holding the baby, breastfeeding, and... singing lullabies? A new study just suggested that both parental singing and listening to womb-like noises can actually help preemies do better.
The research team, from the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, found that preemies with respiratory problems and sepsis did better when they were exposed to familiar noises to a taste of their parents. Listening to lullabies their parents sung, or hearing tapes playing maternal heartbeats or other womb-like noises slowed the babies' heartbeats, and improved their sleeping and eating habits. This study may prove to be revolutionary. Parents of preemies know that the NICU is the only place for their little one to be, but who wouldn't struggle with the idea that their baby is mostly being cared for by strangers however caring? It is good to know that while those tubes and machines are all around, and that cold-looking incubator is the baby's current home, these little ones still benefit from their parents' calming presence. Joanne Loewy is the head of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center. She and her colleagues studied 272 prematurely born babies at 11 different NICUs, which had music therapists. The study team looked at the preemies over two weeks, during which the babies' parents sang them songs and womb noises were played to the babies through special devices. Loewy told Reuters Health: "We are learning from the literature and studies like this that premature infants do not necessarily grow best tucked away in an incubator. Neurologic function can be enhanced with music; vital signs can be enhanced through interactive sounds and music therapy." It is wonderful that these seemingly simple things have such an impact on preemies. Along with existing practices like skin-to-skin contact between preemies and parents, and kangaroo care, these new techniques can prove to make a huge impact and completely change the approach to preemie care. While a preemie is fighting for his or her life, modern medicine appears to be only one essential part of care parental presence can't be replaced by anything. "The singing is extremely important because it represents familiarity the baby heard the mother and father's voice as early as 16 weeks, plus you have melody and rhythm in song," Loewy says. It may sound like she's stating the obvious. But how much of an impact do these techniques really have on a preemie? The babies' heart rate dropped by one or two beats per minute on average after listening to either singing or the womb-like sounds. Their sucking, essential to their ability to eventually eat by themselves rather than through feeding tubes, improved. And the preemies slept much better when they had the chance to listen to familiar sounds from the womb, like the mother's heart beat and fluid-like noises. Loewy added that music therapist were not essential to the process. Parents in NICUs everywhere could help their preemies get well enough to go home sooner by simply singing to them, and holding them close to their heart literally where they can benefit from the same sounds that they were surrounded by when they were still in the uterus. She also pointed out that these actions, including singing songs that are especially important to their own family or culture, can have a calming effect on the parents. There is nothing quite like the stress of a baby in the NICU, for both parents and the babies. You may also like to read about another recent discovery that helps some preemies, here: Can amniotic fluid cure necrotizing enterocolitis in preemies? It looks like science is definitely trying to mimic nature in preemie care, doesn't it?