Something as old as mankind itself is helping keep preterm babies alive — the lullaby.
Research finds that music has become an important new ally for babies who are born too soon and struggle to breathe and eat.
The neonatal intensive care unit in a hospital is filled with technology that helps keep the hospital's tiniest, most fragile patients alive. At New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell – and others across the country – the relentless beeping of monitors fades when the music takes over. The effect on preemies is dramatic and physical.
Studies conducted by Dr. Jeffery Perlman, chief of newborn medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian, Komansky Center for Children's Health, find that gentle music therapy not only slows down the heart rate of preemies but also helps them feed and sleep better. This helps them gain weight and speeds their recovery.
A study published in May in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatric under the aegis of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, found that the type of music matters. Therapeutically designed "live" music -- and parent-preferred lullabies sung in person -- can influence cardiac and respiratory function. They also found that the melodies improved feeding behaviors and may increase prolonged periods of quiet-alert states among premature babies.
Another study published in February 2011 in the Arts in Psychotherapy by Jayne M. Standley of the National Institute for Infant and Child Medical Music Therapy at Florida State University suggests that babies who receive this kind of therapy leave the hospital sooner.
"When they hear something that is very soothing, they adapt to it," Perlman said.
For these tiny babies, music is medicine.
A pair of twins, Jessica and Joshua, were born three months premature. Their dad has been trained by a professional music therapist at the Komansky Center, and now sings to the babies in their NICU cribs in his native Turkish. And he says he has proof that it's working.
"I watched their heart rate," their father said. "You can really watch it go down, 165, 160, 155, 152. It's an amazing feeling."
Jessica Fernald's daughter Hazel was born eight weeks early. "You know babies like lullabies," Fernald said. "But you don't realize how important it is in their healing."
At Komansky, Rebecca Loveszy is the music therapist who sings to preemies such as Jadion, born with a heart defect.
When Loveszy serenades Jadion, I heard the background beeping from the monitor alarms hooked up to his tiny body almost disappear. The oxygen in Jadion's blood went up and his breathing calmed.
The effects of the music therapy appear to last – lullabies echoing inside the intensive care unit often become the children's favorite songs and soothe them even after they leave the hospital.
Rachel Fitzsimons' son William – now a year old – spent 12 weeks in intensive care, and has taken a liking to the tune he listened to during his time there.
"I would sing 'Rock-a-Bye-Baby,'" said Fitzsimons. "It's the one he still responds to the most."
In an intensive care unit bristling with technology, this new field reminds us that medicine doesn't always come from a new drug or surgery – sometimes it's as simple as parents connecting to their children with an age-old source of comfort. A gentle tune.