Improving infants’ quality of life through music

NICU music therapy is used to achieve a variety of medical and developmental goals

The neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) at Norton Children’s Hospital downtown and Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital in St. Matthews offer music therapy for infants and their families.

This clinical and evidence-based health practice is very different from expressive therapy, which uses music along with art, massage, writing, drama and more to help patients and families express feelings and cope with emotions. NICU music therapy is used to achieve a variety of medical and developmental goals and improve the parent-infant bond.

Music therapy can:

  • Improve infant breathing
  • Increase infant weight gain
  • Reduce pain
  • Promote developmental skills
  • Calm the infant and promote deeper sleep
  • Improve sucking and feeding skills
  • Help parents cope with their child’s illness and hospitalization

The therapy usually takes place at the bedside and includes family whenever possible. Sessions may include gentle lullaby-style singing, guitar music, therapeutic touch and personalized lullaby writing. The therapy empowers parents to bond with their child through music and teaches them to use music to promote neurodevelopmental growth, which is important in helping premature infants reach critical developmental milestones.

Music therapy’s use varies based on the child’s condition, length of stay, developmental growth and other criteria.

Michael Detmer, a board-certified and NICU-certified music therapist at Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital, sets individualized goals based on the patient’s needs. Music therapists work with physicians, nurse practitioners, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and other clinicians to assess each patient and create a unique treatment plan.

More than 20 years of research has shown that music therapy has positive effects on social, emotional, communication, behavioral, cognitive and physical development, whether an infant is born prematurely or at term. Detmer sees the positive outcomes of music therapy every day.

“Parents, families and staff consistently report how infants show noticeable benefits after receiving music therapy, whether it be improved oxygen saturation levels, more motivation and endurance during feeding, or increased alertness when cuddling,” Detmer said.

Music therapy in the NICU is funded by the Children’s Hospital Foundation and other donors.* To support music therapy in the NICU, go to

*Special thanks to Max Baumgardner for his generous donation to the music therapy program at Norton Children’s Hospital.