How Music Therapy Helps Forge The Bond Between Preemies And Their Parents

black musical notes on white background

There’s a picture on Pinterest of a premature baby’s hand wrapped around its parent’s pinkie finger. The quote above the picture reads, “On the calendar you may have been early, but in my heart you were right on time.”

Such was the case with a friend’s daughter. Born at just 33 weeks, that little fighter had a long, hard road ahead. My friend called me any time she needed someone to listen, and not knowing what to say, that is pretty much all I could do at the time.

During the first couple of weeks it seemed like every call brought more sad news. The cracked skin around the baby’s chapped lips to develop a skin infection. Although her veins were nearly invisible beneath her nearly translucent skin, she had an IV.

And then there was the tube going down her throat – the one that looked as big has her neck. Adding insult to injury was the fact that my friend and her husband had very limited contact with their new baby. Things looked very bleak during those first couple of weeks.

Music Therapy and the NICU Atmosphere

Fortunately the hospital offered a music therapy program for the patients there, even the tiny little babies in the NICU! Although my friend and her husband were dubious, they agreed to try it – and what they learned made them so glad that they said yes.

The therapist recorded my friend and her husband talking and singing to their daughter on an iPod. The nurse sterilized it and slipped it inside the incubator. The first thing they noticed was that the sounds were very soft. In fact, they were barely audible!

The sensory atmosphere in the NICU is important because preemies lack the development to handle all the stimulation provided by the normal brightness of lighting and volume of sound. Putting a preemie in a normal nursery would most likely cause overstimulation.

The Difference That Music Therapy Makes

There are so many things that can go wrong for a premature infant, and it seems that the earlier they are born, the higher the risk that they might not make it home at all. Although contact with the wee one is limited, music therapy can tear down that barrier.

Even though hospitals have strict rules and regulations about how and when parents can make contact with their premature infant, music therapy helps parents make contact despite barriers like the plastic walls of the incubator.

  • Vocal Recognition – Recording voices of the preemie’s parents on a digital recording device that can be sterilized and left in the NICU with the nurses, such as an iPod or MP3 player, can help the preemie to recognize and respond to their parents’ speech sooner. 
  • Healthier Sleep State – Babies who are subject to music with a certain rhythm and tone during sleep experience a deeper state of sleep. Because time in the NICU is meant for rest and healing, this has a positive effect on the preemie’s overall well-being. 
  • More Alert – Premature infants who are part of a music therapy program are typically more alert during their waking hours, even when in a quiet alert state. The quiet alert state means the preemie is relaxed, observant, and even makes eye contact.
  • Better Respiratory Functions – The lungs of a preemie are underdeveloped. Experiencing healthier sleep and quiet alert states can help regulate breathing. This can help your premature infant absorb more oxygen that is taken into its lungs.

Parents do not have to learn how to play piano to take part in their preemie’s music therapy program, although knowing how to play an instrument certainly helps. Parents can record themselves playing an instrument and have nurses play it for their infant in the NICU.

Later when it is time for the baby to come home, that recording (and later, the parent playing piano or another instrument live) can help ease the transition between living in the NICU and the first few weeks that the baby is able to sleep in its own nursery at home.

When Music Therapy Is Not Appropriate

Unfortunately, not all preemies are ready for a music therapy program. Typically they should be at least 28 weeks gestational age, weigh more than 3 pounds, and have the clinical stability to handle this kind of stimulation. The NICU pediatrician and music therapist should both be consulted before any type of program begins.

About the Author:

Texas freelancer Melissa Cameron enjoys working in her home office because it gives her plenty of time to spend with her husband Dave and their two children. She loves when her writing topics coincide with real life, such as staying in shape or finding the best deals for your next Disney vacation. In her spare time she enjoys knitting, fitness, trying new recipes that use organic ingredients, and watching movies with her family.

Melissa Cameron understands what it is like to need balance in a busy day with a spouse, children and elderly parents. When she does have a bit of spare time, she enjoys scrap-booking, digital photography and writing and hopes to realize her goals as a freelance writer online so she can work at home. Melissa loves surfing the Internet and her husband often refers to her as a walking infomercial.

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