Research Review: Music Therapy in the NICU

Standley, J. (2012). Music therapy research in the NICU: an updated meta-analysis. Neonatal Network: The Journal of Neonatal Nursing. 31(5). 312-316.

It’s Spring! And everything’s coming up…baby! The George Center is in full blown baby mode in preparation for the birth of the first born son to Director Jamie George. Furthermore, I’m about to become an aunt for the first time later this June. Now seemed like the perfect time to dive into some research about music therapy in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Preterm birth occurs when a baby is born prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy. Last year, the CDC reported that preterm birth affected nearly 500,000 babies in the U.S., or in other words 1 and every 8 infants born. The earlier in pregnancy a baby is born, the greater the likelihood for the baby to development long term health issues. Research indicates that severity of prematurity at birth is highly correlated with lowered cognition at school age and future need for special education. Not only can preterm birth have lasting consequences for the baby and family members but it’s also incredibly costly. On average, premature births account for $26 billion dollars each year. So, what can be done to help reduce this cost to the health care system and more importantly, support premature babies and their families? NICU Music Therapy, that’s what!

Music stimulation can be processed early in development and has unique auditory input and neurologic consequences for preterm infants. Board-certified music therapists specialized in NICU music therapy are using music in hospitals across the country to enhance the developmental care and maturation of preterm infants. Music therapists are providing short periods of continuous music playing during times when infants are in the incubator. This exposure to music is eliciting calmer preemies, increasing weight gain, stabilizing physiologic measures and increasing oxygen saturation levels. Infants listening to music also reached discharge criteria significantly sooner.
Other music procedures are being incorporated as well. Possibly one of the most fascinating (in my opinion) being utilized within the NICU is the pacifier activated lullaby (PAL). This device is a pacifier fitted within an adapter that activates a CD player. Sensors in the PAL detect correct non-nutritive sucking and provide immediate musical reinforcement to the infant in the form of a lullaby. Subsequently, premature infants receiving the PAL double pacifier sucking rates, in turn increasing feeding rates. In addition research has indicated that implementation of the PAL greatly reduces length of hospital stay. And this friends, directly impacts that whopping $26 billion dollar yearly cost of care for premature infants in the U.S.

There is a significant body of research spanning the last 20 years that compares standard NICU care with music versus standard NICU care without music. In fact, the research supports that music has a positive and significant benefit within the NICU setting. Music is pacifying and increasing infant tolerance of stimulation. It’s increasing feeding ability, promoting sleep following painful nursing procedures, and promoting attachment with infants’ mothers.

More research is definitely warranted, particularly in areas of infant communication and language stimulation through sung lullabies. However, in all, the potential for growth and increased implementation of NICU music therapy is huge! It is my hope that we continue to investigate the impact of music within this setting and delve further into the long-term developmental outcomes that music may offer for premature infants.

The George Center has two NICU-certified music therapists on staff! Learn more with our free consultation offer!


Image credit: Flickr user tamakisono