Family nurse practitioner Ann-Marie Dasslers belief in music therapy started with a very fragile premature girl she met on her shift as a student nurse at a New York hospital in 1968.
Back then, such infants were alone in their isolettes. Not even the parents were allowed in, Dassler said. So, as the childs primary caregiver, Dassler did what came naturally to calm the baby girl: she sang.
Dassler couldnt hold the baby, and nothing would soothe her except a John Denver lullaby called “For Baby (For Bobbie).”
Five years later, Dassler treated the girl again before a surgical procedure. She sang her to sleep with the same song, and the girls mother started to cry. Dassler said the mother told her the first time her daughter heard that song on the radio in their home, she was inconsolable until she let her hold the radio in her arms.
“It was powerful to me to understand how therapeutic that interaction, that entrainment, had been for her,” said Dassler, RN, MSN, FNP, who now assesses and treats babies in the neonatal ICU at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.
Thats why she jumped at the chance to work with Joanne Loewy, DA, LCAT, MT-BC, director of Beth Israels Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, when she proposed a multisite study of how music therapy helps preemies. Dassler helped design and implement the study and later helped analyze the results.
How music helps
Loewy wanted to build on existing music therapy literature. There was a large amount of documentation showing music therapy helps patients of all ages, but Loewy wanted to know: What kind of music helps preemies, and what part of a song? Is it the melody or the rhythm? Sung by whom? With what instruments?
Determining what kind of music worked was critical with premature infants, Loewy said, because of the danger of overstimulating their tiny systems.
The study, published in the journal of Pediatrics in April, tested three interventions: a drumlike gato box (to replicate heartbeat), a disc full of beads that made a “wooshing” womb-like sound when tipped, and sung lullabies that were part of the familys community or culture. All of the interventions were calibrated for volume, pitch and rhythm to match each babys vital signs.
Results showed overall improved feeding and sleeping behaviors and sucking patterns, all things that can lead to shorter hospital stays and improved outcomes, Loewy said.
“The old school was put the babies in the incubators and let them sleep and build their cells,” Loewy said. “I guess now were seeing that neurobiology is at work and learning can occur through quiet-alert states.”
Nurses and physicians observed the training of the music therapists and that helped with buy-in, Loewy said. That was important so nurses could coordinate with therapists and give them access during feeding times and feel more confident their charges were getting the help they needed.
“Nurses are with the babies 24/7, and if you have understanding and respect from nurses then your research is golden particularly in a NICU,” Loewy said.
Music soothes all in NICU
Music therapy has benefits not just for the babies, but also for families and nurses, said Leonora Yaun, RN, MA, CLC, NICU nurse manager at St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan.
St. Lukes-Roosevelt and Beth Israel were among the studys 11 test sites, which also included Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx; Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center, West Islip, N.Y.; North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset, N.Y.; Stony Brook (N.Y.) University Hospital; Maria Fareri Childrens Hospital at Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla, N.Y.; Vassar Brothers Medical Center, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; HackensackUMC, Hackensack, N.J.; Childrens Hospital of Pittsburgh; and Hahnemann University Hospital, Philadelphia.
Parents, often commuting from home to the hospital, perhaps also caring for other children and worrying about a fragile child, are calmed by the music and more focused and relaxed in feeding. This takes pressure off of the infants to eat and helps them burn fewer calories.
Even the nurses move at a different pace when the environmental music is playing, Yaun said.
“They dont know, but I observe them,” she said. “As a critical nurse, the tendency is to respond immediately, and they run,” she said.
When the music is playing the nurses move in a more deliberate, less-frenzied way, Yaun said, which also is less stressful for the entire NICU.
Marcia Frellick is a freelance writer.