Music - especially lullabies - deliver health advantages to the most vulnerable babies, preemies, who are being treated in the neonatal intensive care unit, a new study suggests.

The finding was published in the journal Pediatrics and revealed that premature babies who listen to music can see improvements in their heart rates and breathing.

A group of researchers from Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City found that live music paired with babies' breathing and heart rates improved feeding and sleeping patterns. Additionally, the researchers said that lullabies chosen by the parents seemed to encourage bonding between babies and parents.

The study consisted of 272 premature babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) at 11 different hospitals. Investigators analyzed the effects of three types of music therapy on premature babies. The infants were born close to 32 weeks into the pregnancies or had issues such as respiratory distress and sepsis.

Certified music therapists used devices called Remo ocean discs and gato boxes, which emit "whoosh" and heartbeat womb sounds while matched with babies' heart and breath patterns, three times each week for two weeks.

Therapists and parents also sang lullabies chosen by the babies' parents, and when parents had no preference, they sang "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star".

Babies exposed to music therapies showed more positive health effects like improved feeding and sleeping patterns. Infants exposed to the ocean disc sounds also experienced better blood-oxygen levels and quiet-alert states.

The parents' perception of stress in the NICU environment also greatly declined with the musical interventions.

Joanne Loewy, director of Beth Israel's Louis Armstrong Center for Music & Medicine said:

"Many NICUs are noisy, or people put on random lullabies that are recorded. What we're saying is, it's not just any old lullaby that's recorded, it's the power of the parent's voice synchronized therapeutically . . . and the other two sounds that can have a therapeutic benefit."

Lullabies significantly strengthened the emotional bond between baby and parents - especially those that were chosen by the family.

Preterm is described as babies who are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. These infants generally have greater rates of complications, such as:
  • sensory deficits
  • respiratory illnesses
  • cerebral palsy
  • learning disabilities
Loewy concluded, "We are learning from the literature and studies like this that premature infants do not necessarily grow best tucked away in an incubator."

A separate study conducted last year pointed out that listening to music helps with insomnia.

Also, music therapy has been reported to alleviate depression, by helping people express their emotions.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald