Using music to help preemies ease into a world they weren’t ready for

Music therapists specially trained to work in neonatal intensive care units help preemies develop.

How babies develop, before and after birth, is nothing short of a miracle. But what happens when they are born prematurely, before they are ready for the sights, sounds and touches of the outside world? The answer may be in music.

Music therapists specially trained to work in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are stepping in to help these babies develop so they can make a smooth transition to home.

“Premature babies have difficulty processing senses and are easily overstimulated. At about 32 weeks gestational age, we can begin introducing stimuli,” said Alexis Ruffner, music therapist for the NICU at Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital. “Before that, stimuli like sound and touch can cause distress.”

Alexis said she works with preterm babies in three important ways to help them learn to tolerate the world outside the womb:

  • Processing sounds by singing to the baby
  • Processing touch by stroking or massaging the baby
  • Processing movement by rocking the baby

Alexis observes how a baby responds to these stimuli — first one at a time and then layered on one another. She teaches parents to do the same.

“When parents know their baby’s distress cues, they can pause and give the baby a break during everyday routines,” she said.

Helping preemies’ developmental progress

Alexis also works on feeding skills using a special device that plays a lullaby as a reward for sucking on a pacifier.

“The sucking pattern doesn’t develop until 34 weeks, so these preemies need help with learning it to ensure they are feeding well,” she said.

NICU music therapy also can be used for developmental advancement in babies who must spend a long time in the hospital or who have other health issues, such as neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Expertise to train other music therapists

Because introducing music to babies involves such a delicate process, music therapists can undergo specialized training to be credentialed to work in a NICU. Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital is one of just two hospitals in the United States offering this training to music therapists. It is the only hospital accepting music therapists from outside the country.

Three times a year, a group of eight therapists comes to Louisville to complete clinical fieldwork training and get hands-on experience working with babies. The program is provided by the National Institute for Infant & Child Medical Music Therapy.