Researcher exploring how to best use music to help premature infants develop

by Christine Metz Howard

(Medical Xpress)—Neonatal intensive care units are armed with ventilators and incubators to support a premature baby's early arrival into the world. But one University of Kansas researcher believes music can serve as another tool to aid in the infant's still developing neurological system.

Deanna Hanson-Abromeit, an assistant professor of therapy and music education, is working to provide more theory-based research on how music can help premature babies manage , such as noise and human interactions.

Since the 1970s, nurses have used music in units to help premature babies continue to develop. But over the past 40 years, research on the effectiveness of music therapy and premature infants has been mixed.

That's largely because the previous studies have had too many variables in the population sample, the methods of intervention and the measure of effectiveness, Hanson-Abromeit said.

"While studies have shown benefits, they have been limited in size, and we have been limited by access to funding," she said.

Music isn't being used for enrichment but to create a multisensory tool that triggers the senses of hearing, feeling, balance and movement. Premature infants haven't been exposed to all the that full-term babies experience during the final months of the fetal development process.

As a result, premature infants have trouble interacting with outside stimuli, such as turning toward a person who is speaking and expressing emotion. Music can support development outcomes such as self-regulation, feeding and transitions from the sleep to wake cycle.

Research is still needed on how the complexity of music affects the infant, Hanson-Abromeit said. While studies have looked at the effectiveness of music therapy, few have compared the kind of music being used. For example, how do premature babies react to recorded music versus a person humming?

"We have to be very careful about the complexity of the music and introduce characteristics of the music, such as timbre, contour and even tempo, in a way for them to process," Hanson-Abromeit said.

Anecdotally, as a therapist, she has seen success with music therapy.

"I have respiratory therapists ask if they can chain me to the bedside, because when I'm there humming and singing, the baby doesn't need as much oxygen," she said.

But those kind of improvements don't last long after the music stops. And, Hanson-Abromeit wants to know why.

This summer, Hanson-Abromeit is part of a team organizing what is believed to be the first transdisciplinary meeting for integrating music therapy into care.

Known as the Music and Neuro-Developmentally At-Risk Infant (MANDARI) Project, the conference will bring together those in psychology, medicine, public health and music with the long-term goal of creating sustainable research for geared toward neurodevelopment of at-risk newborns.

The hope is for those from different disciplines to form groups and embark on new research together. The conference will use an arts-based approach to the collaboration process.

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