Music with Preemies: Research is in!

I have known since before my children were born, that music is powerful with infants and children.  What I didn’t know in those early days was that babies can hear up to 5 months before they are born.  Research has documented that the fetal ear can begin functioning as early as the beginning of the second trimester.  Many people don’t realize that the baby can hear in utero, and therefore are not sensitive to the sonic environment that the mother is in.  Of course I don’t think that loud music is EVER a good idea for any human at any point, but pregnant women should be especially careful to be in sonic environments that are quiet and calm…as much as possible.

A recent issue of Psychology Today reports that:

The Pacifier Activated Lullaby Device, or PAL, uses a specially-wired pacifier that plays a lullaby when the baby sucks with a certain amount of force. Why sucking? Sucking is a precursor to feeding, which is vital for the premature baby’s growth and development. The PAL incorporates a basic, positive reinforcement conditioning response that reportedly can reduce the length of a premature baby’s hospital stay by up to five days.

It’s an exciting new product. Developed by music therapy researchers at Florida State University who partnered with Power Device Technologies Inc., the PAL has been extensively studied and the device has gone through all the FDA, research & development, and patent hoops. And although the concept is simple, it has the potential to help thousands of premature infants learn how to suck–and ultimately feed–quickly.

However, it is important to keep in mind that feeding isn’t the only challenge a premature baby faces…and it’s not the only way music can support the development of our littlest babies.

Three specific ideas come to mind:

(1) Music as a support for parent-infant bonding.

One of the challenges facing premature babies is that they do not have the same opportunities to bond with their parents as full-term babies do. The touching, rocking, holding, eye gazing, nursing…all of these bonding behaviors can easily be missed. Humming and singing to your premature baby can offer an opportunity for the two of you to bond, despite some of the space and physical limitations of the NICU environment.

(2) Music for reducing distress behaviors.

Premature babies often have a hard time processing and tolerating environmental and sensory information. They can be easily stressed, which does not support the growth and development they need to thrive. The right music applied in the right way can help the premature baby to calm down when stressed. It can reduce their distress behaviors, thus allowing for healthy growth and development.

(3) Music for supporting the development of self-regulatory behaviors.

As described above, the right music applied in the right way can help serve as an “external regulator” when used to help a stressed premature baby calm down. Hypothetically, this “teaches” the infant what it feels like to calm down when stressed. Over time, a baby learns to internally–or self–regulate. Stress is going to happen; what is important developmentally is how the infant is able to tolerate and calm down when stressed.

Musical Considerations

It is important to note that not just any music will work. As a general rule–from a developmental standpoint–the music should be non-verbal (e.g. no words), vocal only (e.g. no instruments), and soothing. “Soothing” music in this case is that which has a slow and steady pulse where the melody moves in a step-wise motion (a descending step-wise motion is best) and the volume is soft.

As a final note, in these situations, it is important to be super-sensitive and aware of how your baby is reacting to sensory stimulation, such as touch, sound, and visual information. Premature babies are not developmentally ready to handle as much sensory stimulation as full-term babies. It is important to consistently monitor your baby’s behaviors and adjust the amount and length of stimulation based whether your baby needs more or less in that moment.

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