How Music Helps Preterm Neonatal Infants


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We started this year by looking at how music can help to support children with language delays. Looking a little closer, there are several health conditions that music can support, specifically through singing. 

This is particularly timely because of the number of recent articles showing how lockdown has impacted all of us, particularly our children. As a result, many different holistic and psychological approaches are being recommended to improve children’s outcomes.  

Ironically, music has been shown to support the development of several areas, including physical and socio-emotional. Sadly, it has also been one of the first subjects to go in favour of more academic subjects, including numeracy and literacy. 

Musical Support For Preterm Infants

In response to this, we are going to continue our enquiry into the ways that we can use music and singing to support health conditions in children. This month we are going to look at how music can support children right from the start: pre-term infants in neonatal care. 

Music has an amazing effect on people. It has been found to increase happiness hormones, promote relaxation, help people to learn and work more efficiently, and even help people to get along better together. Research during COVID-19 started looking more closely into why and how this may occur. 

How Music Soothes Stress In Neonatal Care

Music therapists have been publishing findings on the different effects that music has had on small groups of people with specific conditions for years, and the common benefits have been on stress: listening to and creating music reduces blood pressure, improves metabolism and has even been suggested that this is because music improves the immune system. 

A review of 13 studies (Yue et al., 2021) considered over 1,000 infants in neonatal intensive care. In an environment of machines, tubes and medical equipment, studies showed that music and singing reduced the infant’s heart rate, respiratory rate, oral feeding volume, stress level and maternal anxiety. These are all predictors of survival, so important areas that tell doctors what interventions are necessary. 

A further review of 25 studies (Haslbeck et al., 2023) with over 1,500 infants did not show increased oxygen saturation or infant development but did appear to reduce heart rates significantly. Heart rate is linked to the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol (fight/flight responses), which can lead to medical emergencies including heart attack and stroke. This is why we are encouraged to reduce our heart rate at all ages. 

With this in mind, here are some lullabies to get started with younger children particularly: 

Hush Little Baby 

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. 
Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird 
And if that mockingbird won’t sing, 
Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring 

If that diamond ring turns brass 
Mama’s gonna buy you a looking glass 
If that looking glass gets broke 
Mama’s gonna buy you a billy goat 

If that billy goat won’t pull 
Mama’s gonna buy a you a cart and bull 
If that cart and bull turn over 
Mama’s gonna buy you a dog named Rover 

If that dog named Rover won’t bark 
Mama’s gonna buy you a horse and cart 
And if that horse and cart fall down 
You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town 

This lovely traditional song is full of rhyming couplets, pleasing to the ear because of the gentle rhythm. The continuity of the storyline makes the lyrics more memorable, and the rhythm of the words gives the feeling of call-and-response completion. 

My Bonnie 

My Bonnie lies over the ocean 
My Bonnie lies over the sea 
My Bonnie lies over the ocean 
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me 

Bring back, oh bring back, oh 
Bring back my Bonnie, to me, to me 
Bring back, oh bring back, oh 
Bring back my Bonnie to me 

Oh, blow ye waves over the ocean 
Oh, blow ye waves over the sea 
Oh, blow ye waves over the ocean 

And bring back my Bonnie to me 

This well-known Scottish lullaby is written in the rocking rhythm of 6/8 timing, like other children’s songs and many sea shanties. With the feeling of rocking on the waves of the ocean, we think that rocking is familiar to newborns because of their experience, floating in amniotic fluid. 

Toora Loora Loora 

Over in Killarney, many years ago 
Me mother sang a song to me 
In tones so sweet and low 
Just a simple little ditty, in her good old Irish way 
And I’d give the world if she could sing  
That song to me today 

Toora, loora, loora, Toora, loora, lai 
Toora, loora, loora, hush now, don’t you cry 
Toora, loora, loora, Toora, loora, lai 
That’s and Irish lullaby 

Oft in dreams I wander to that cot again 
I feel her arms a-huggin me as when she held me then 
And I hear her voice a hummin 
To me as in days of yore 
When she used to rock me fast asleep 
Outside the cabin door 

This traditional Irish lullaby is also written in the 6/8 rocking rhythm, full of rhythm and rhyme. The brain naturally looks for pleasing sound patterns, and this will be far more pleasing to the ear than the medical beeps and noises of the monitoring machines. 

Cradle Song 

Lullaby and goodnight 
With roses bestride 
With lilies bedecked 
‘Neath baby’s sweet bed 
May thou sleep, may thou rest 
May thy slumber be blessed 
May thou sleep, may thou rest 
May thy slumber be blessed 

This classic lullaby is actually written in 3/4 waltz timing, a wonderful rhythm for a slow and quiet dance. 

Knowing that these types of songs are used in intensive care to quiet and calm babies in distress is useful. We can use this knowledge with our own little ones, bringing calm to their situation, whatever it may be. 

Take a look at some of Frances’ other blog here:

Promoting Language Development With Music 

Musical Drawing In The Early Years

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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