People are always surprised to find out that I’m a music therapist, intrigued by what this might possibly mean. When I tell them I work at a children’s hospital, their eyes tend to grow a little wider, and when I add that I specialize in the neonatal intensive care unit, I sometimes think they might fall over. “How could you possibly use music with patients that aren’t even old enough to talk?” they always ask.
Music therapy in the neonatal ICU combines the unique principles of music, such as the ability of rhythm to help the body organize heartbeat and breathing, paired with the knowledge of how an infant develops neurologically and physiologically. Using a specialized technique called multimodal stimulation, we are able to layer different types of stimulation to help infants adapt and thrive in their environment. Through auditory, tactile and vestibular stimulation, music therapists are able to help facilitate neurological development as well as promote relaxation.
When we sing to babies, it may look like we’re just playing lullabies for them. We are actually doing much more than that. We are creating music based on each individual patient using information from their heart rate and respiration rate to guide the tempo and style of the music. We then match that with infant massage to add tactile stimulation as the playing continues. If the baby does not show signs of overstimulation, we will then add a layer of vestibular stimulation through rocking, while the massage and music continues. Through this technique, a baby is able to better deal with her new environment. The sights and sounds of the neonatal ICU become less distressing, and the baby is able to use her energy to heal and grow.
Seeing is believing so we encourage parents to watch as we perform this technique, and they’re always amazed as they notice their child’s heart rate and respiration rate slow down and steady, while the oxygen saturation levels climb as the baby breathes more efficiently. Their child starts to become more relaxed and something called “entrainment” typically occurs. This happens when the baby’s breathing starts to sync with the music. As we slow down our playing, the breathing slows simultaneously. Not only does this provide a sense of empowerment for parents, but it also promotes bonding of parent and child. Families learn to use these techniques during the hospitalization and are able to take them home to help both their babies and themselves relax in yet another new environment.