A Case for Singing to Your Child

A clinical trial of a music therapy program showed how lullabies, sung by parents, help premature infants.

Nasser Nuri/Reuters

study published yesterday in the journal Pediatrics demonstrated that what we've always intuited about the calming power of music for newborns has physical merit. Musical intervention -- including instruments that imitate sounds they heard in the womb or having their parents sing simple, meaningful melodies -- may impart additional benefits for premature infants.

Researchers at Beth Israel Medical Center found that a two-week program of music therapy for babies in the NICU was associated with lowered heart rates, improved sleep and sucking behavior, and, for the personalized lullabies, better feeding.

Although they didn't look at whether the music therapy actually affected the infants' medical outcomes, the researchers concludes that "the informed, intentional therapeutic use of live sound and parent-preferred lullabies applied by a certified music therapist can influence cardiac and respiratory function." 

Really, though, the spirit behind the study is much less clinical than all that. It starts with the recognition that the NICU is scary, and depersonalized, in ways that can be harmful to both a premature infant and its parents. Its main focus seems to be underscoring the importance of human connection, and parent-infant bonding, for families where the infant's birth, and first days, may have been overwhelmed by the medical interventions of the intensive-care unit.

About half of the 272 infants across 11 NICUs were sung "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," chosen for its approachability. "Twinkle" is a melody that is well known to parents of all cultures in the United States," explain the authors. "It is based on a perfect 5th and has a small melodic range and repetitive patterns, with a simplified structure easily sung by 'nonmusician' adults."

The researchers preferred, though, to use "songs of kin," melodies chosen by the parents that were imbued with contextual importance, be it spiritual, tied to the family's culture or history, or invented by the parents themselves. Such songs can create an atmosphere of comfort and normalcy and, they suggest, help the infant develop as a member of its family, instead of just another patient in an incubator.

A complementary approach, which the researchers described as the most innovative, matched the rhythm of percussive instruments to the infants' breath, which they believed would "evoke an environment of strength and stability." These instruments need be played live, they said, because a recording can't respond to the infants' body rhythms. In some cases, the parents were taught how to mimic these sounds, which evoked breathing and heartbeats, as part of their lullabies.

There is, as the researchers note, a lot of research suggesting that finding a way to support parent-infant bonding, which can be difficult to accomplish with premature infants, can impact long-term health outcomes. While having a trained specialist will help, lullabies are something that can be more or less universally applied, by "nonmusician" adults and by people like the young mother featured in The New York Times' coverage of this study, who only found out she was pregnant a week before giving birth to her son, 13 weeks early. Her particular circumstances underscore another important, if not clinically significant, result of the intervention: it was associated with reduced stress for parents, who were given a natural, and visibly effective, way to care for their newborns during a time when almost everything else was outside of their control.