Music therapy can help premature babies and parents in NICU

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Monica Logan | 09/02/2021


Becoming a new parent is an exciting, yet also daunting time. No amount of reading, talking, or pre-natal classes can truly prepare a new parent for those first few weeks and months. The sleepless nights, unpredictability and ever-changing routines. Adjusting to parenthood is rewarding but tough. It’s particularly challenging for parents of premature babies.

For most pregnant women, their pregnancies last 40 weeks. Babies born before the 37th week are known as ‘pre-term’ or ‘premature’ babies. Each year in Australia about 20,000 babies (almost 1 in 10) are born prematurely. Thanks to modern medical advances, most premature babies born between 32 and 36 weeks go on to develop normally and don’t have any serious long-term problems

Babies born before 32 weeks or those weighing less than 2.5kg, may need to be cared for in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). They may have underdeveloped organs, or lack body fat and skin integrity to regulate their body temperature. These premature babies are placed in an incubator with special equipment that protect them from infection, excessive noise and light, and also regulate temperature and feeding to help them thrive.


Music therapy can help premature babies develop and be discharged from NICU earlier

Research has shown that music therapy has a positive effect on premature babies, and can help babies to be discharged from NICU up to two weeks earlier.

In the womb, the neurological system in a foetus develops in the last three months. This means that if a baby is born early, its neurological system including the ability to receive and process information, sensation and motor function, is still developing.

Music therapy can help provide premature babies with positive stimulation for neurological development.  It can buffer the sounds of the machinery and equipment in the NICU helping to soothe and calm babies. It can also help regulate baby’s breathing and heart rate, and improve their feeding behaviour resulting in improved weight gain and strength.

Music therapy conducted in the NICU is focused on the baby’s needs, and revolves around their gestational age and how far they would have developed in the womb if they had not been born early.

Music therapists assess a baby’s breathing rhythm, and their facial expressions and gesticulations. They interact with babies through improvised, entrained humming and singing. Very premature babies can only handle simple humming and usually need to be in their incubators. Hence music therapists focus on keeping their humming calm, simple, predictable and repetitive; so as not to overstimulate the baby. Music therapists continually adapt and tailor their humming/singing to the baby’s subtle breathing rhythm and expressions.



Music therapy can also help parents of babies in NICU

It can be challenging time for parents of premature babies in NICU – seeing your baby in an incubator, being separated from them, and not being able to cuddle, feed and care for them as easily. Research on parents with babies in NICU has shown that parents may feel distressed, depressed, overwhelmed, lacking control, and isolated.

Where possible, music therapists engage parents in the music therapy sessions by providing music therapy while parents are holding babies skin-to-skin. This interaction is beneficial for both babies and parents by fostering intimacy and strengthening the parent-baby bonding process. For babies, it can help to further reinforce the positive associations with touch. It also helps parents to relax and cope with what can be a challenging, stressful and uncertain time.

With the help of music therapists, parents can maintain the benefits of music therapy after babies are discharged from NICU. Music therapists also teach and support parents techniques to hum and sing to their babies, ways to use music and techniques to help babies with sleeping and feeding.