Could Music Be the Key to Caring for Preemies?

Premature babies certainly need special care – and according to a new review, music may be one major component.

Whether you’re a seasoned songstress or an off-key warbler, chances are your baby loves the sound of your voice. But according to a new review, if you’re the mother of a baby born prematurely, your singing might literally help your little one catch his or her breath.

The review, which was published in Pediatrics, analyzed the findings of several studies on the topic. The data suggests that the sound of a mother’s singing voice can help stabilize a premature baby’s breathing rate while he or she is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). What’s more, the observed infants who received musical therapy were released about three days earlier than other preemies in the NICU.

To reach this conclusion, reviewers looked at results from 14 clinical trials involving musical therapists.

While the musical therapists played key roles in these treatments, the therapy almost always involved the mothers singing directly to their babies, which might explain why the methods appeared to be so successful.  

"Full-term infants can recognize the mother's voice at birth," Lucja Bieleninik, Ph.D., whose research appeared in the review, told HealthDay. "This connection is important to foster in premature infants, whose last months of gestation are instead spent outside of the womb."

Although some of the trials involved playing recordings of the mother’s voice, researchers believe direct singing is more effective, as parents can change their voices and tones, getting quieter when the baby starts to fall asleep.

The familiarity of a mother’s voice is key, but according to researcher Joanne Loewy of Mt. Sinai’s Music Health System’s Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, other elements are important as well. She recommended using simple, predictable rhythms and periodic lulls when singing to your child. Loewy’s own study was included in the review. 

This idea isn’t a new one: A few years ago, our sister publication, Parents, reported the benefits of music for premature infants. We also shared the results of a 2014 study that identified similar benefits for premature infants exposed to music. With this new review, it appears the evidence of this link is mounting.

But premature infants aren’t the only ones who stand to gain from this sort of therapy. Dr. Bieleninik and her colleagues found reason to believe this sort of musical therapy can also bring down maternal stress levels (and anyone who has ever given birth prematurely knows how stressful this experience can be). 

Our takeaway from this review? There’s really no reason not to try singing to your premature infant, possibly even with the help of a certified musical therapist. The research seems promising. Of course, even if working with a musical therapist doesn’t provide a miraculous recovery for your preemie, singing to your child is certainly a beautiful way for you both to bond.