Science of Song: Do Lullabies Help Sick Babies?

Singing a lullaby to a baby may not sound like cutting-edge scientific research, and to many parents it comes naturally. But one doctor believes a simple melody might actually be a powerful tool in reducing pain and speeding the recovery of premature babies.

"There are millions of babies born every year in the U.S.," said Dr. Mark Tramo, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. "And the number of premature babies that are being born is increasing remarkably, [but] what's being done to ameliorate the pain and suffering that they go through?"

After Tramo's daughter, Cadence, was born three weeks premature, he felt music played a part in helping her recover in intensive care.

"She had a feeding tube," said Tramo, "and I arrived on the scene around three in the morning and I said 'No, no, no. I'll try and feed Cadence.' So I kind of palmed her and held her in my hand. And started feeding her… and like a lot of songs you write it just comes to you. So I started singing 'Bright, bright world, clear, clear day, I'm a little baby drinking.'"

His daughter never needed a feeding tube again, which got Tramo thinking about the relationship between two of his life's passions — medicine and music.

The Medicine of Music

"Well I started playing [guitar] when I was 6," Tramo said. "Beatles arrived when I was 7, and then when I was in medical school we had a rock band at Yale. The entertainment business isn't the most reliable business even if you make it. My parents would have killed me after paying for Yale."

Tramo went on to teach neuroloogy at Harvard Medical School. While there, he conducted an experiment at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children to see whether he could confirm his theory that music is good medicine.

"What we did was find that traditional Western lullabies were able to decrease the stress and pain response to procedures," he said. "Relative to a control group, more than twice as much."

Tramo studied premature babies who routinely have their blood drawn using a painful procedure called a heelstick.

"The procedure itself requires the warming of a heel so that you increase the blood supply," said Peggy Settle, Nursing Director for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and co-author of Tramo's study. "And then they use a lancet to actually a use a pin prick … into the edge of a baby's heel so that you can obtain blood to send off to a blood test. It's a preferred method of obtaining blood in the newborn population."

Quiet Lullaby Quells Baby in Pain

The technique is also very painful, especially for infants. While "Nightline" was visiting the NICU, they observed as a preemie who was less than 24 hours old was administered a heelstick.

"The baby started crying, and the heart rate went up when the heel was punctured," said Tramo. "The heart rate went up about 10 beats per minute. And you could see the stress — this baby's stress response included crying."

Tramo measures a baby's level of pain by behavioral responses such as grimacing or crying, as well as physical responses.

"And what you see is the heart rate go up," said Tramo. "If you're monitoring the blood pressure, that would go up too. [The] respiratory rate could change. So you can use the heart as a window into the brain."

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