Music Therapy Provides Unique Benefits to Premature Infants and Parents

When newborn babies are premature or ill, around-the-clock care and an extended stay in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is often required. While in the NICU, babies receive care from a team of health care providers, including a bedside nurse, respiratory therapist and a neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP) or a resident, both overseen by a neonatologist. Babies and family members also receive support from social workers, case managers, family support coordinators, certified lactation consultants, chaplains, dietitians, and physical/occupational and speech therapists. At Eskenazi Health, babies and families are treated and supported by traditional health care methods and a holistic treatment option – music therapy.

Music therapy is the clinical use of music to address non-musical goals. A boardcertified music therapist works with patients to establish an individualized treatment plan and addresses the whole person, affecting physical, emotional, spiritual, cognitive and social well-being. Research shows music therapy with premature infants can help stabilize heart rate and oxygen saturation, support self-regulation and self-soothing behaviors,  decrease stress response and improve tolerance to stimuli, and facilitate healthy neurological growth and development. Music therapy has also shown to help promote bonding between infants and caregivers as both can experience trauma from being separated during a NICU stay. Eskenazi Health NICU mom, Shaylyn, can attest to the positive impact music therapy can have on NICU babies and their families.

Born at 28-and-a-half-weeks gestation, arriving almost three months early, Shaylyn’s son, Emanuell, was referred to Eskenazi Health's board certified music therapist, Tori Obermeier, for developmental stimulation and family support. As premature infants are extremely sensitive and vulnerable to touch, sounds and visual stimulants, it is important to slowly introduce music and other sounds. Music therapists are trained to use live music with infants, as it can be adjusted in the moment to meet the baby’s needs without being too overstimulating or stressful to the infant’s developing brain. Infants give cues when they are overstimulated or stressed.

“When I first met baby Emanuell, he was too little to introduce music. Gradually, I was able to include more sounds as he grew bigger and stronger, tolerating more stimuli including humming, singing and guitar,” said Obermeier.

As Emanuell accomplished positive growth milestones, he was not alone in his journey. Shaylyn was experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety after the birth of her son, with many symptoms amplified due to the situation surrounding the birth of Emanuell.

“Recovering after childbirth is hard, but it’s even harder when your baby doesn’t get to come home with you,” said Shaylyn.

The music therapy sessions helped Shaylyn through anxiety attacks and stress. Sessions included meditation led by Obermeier to calm Shaylyn’s nerves while she held Emanuell using kangaroo care, which is a commonly used method of skin-toskin contact while holding the baby in an upright position against a parent’s bare chest. Through kangaroo care and music therapy, both mother and child stabilized their heartbeats and regulated their breathing by taking cues from each other.

“I needed him just as much, if not more, than he needed me,” Shaylyn said.

During this difficult time, music therapy aided the growth and development of Emanuell and helped Shaylyn through postpartum depression and anxiety. For outside of live sessions, Obermeier created a music therapy heartbeat recording with Emanuell’s heartbeat and recorded the song Emmanuel, Emanuell’s namesake, for Shaylyn to treasure. Music therapy helped both Emanuell and Shaylyn heal and grow individually, but also bond and develop a strong relationship many premature infants and parents struggle with.

“Through music therapy, we can learn to read a baby's stress signs and communication. Even though infants cannot talk to us and express their needs in a traditional sense, they are absolutely able to communicate with us. Music therapy is a safe space for parents to interact with their babies and learn their communication style,” Obermeier explained.

For more information about Eskenazi Health Music Therapy, please click here.

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