Singing and playing music to your baby or young child may seem to be a no-brainer. We all have strong associations with nursery rhymes or childhood ditties sung to us by our parents and grandparents. We associate these with feelings of comfort and security, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world that we would sing to our own children as we cuddle and soothe them, or put them to bed.
Imagine, though, that your baby was born earlier than anticipated, and had to spend time in a neonatal unit in a hospital. Perhaps your baby also has serious medical issues and needs to be constantly monitored, being linked up to a frightening array of medical equipment. Hospital staff are constantly moving around the wards checking everything is OK, and there are alarms on ventilators going off, the hiss of oxygen and all sorts of electric lights flashing and beeping. It can’t be easy to bond with a baby when they are being kept in an incubator and need special medical treatment.
Although hospital staff are trained to support families in these situations, it’s often a very traumatic time for parents. Research into parental experiences in neonatal units shows that feelings of anxiety, guilt and even depression are all common features for many mums and dads. This can prevent or disrupt the natural bonding process that is so important to the healthy development of the baby, and the happiness of the family unit too.
Recent research has shown, however, that music therapy can offer a way for parents to connect with and develop their relationship with their premature baby while they are in hospital. This consists of a music therapist playing a guitar or other instruments, and singing with parents to their baby on the ward. Using melodies and lullabies that the parents choose – including favourite songs, gentle sounds and simple rhythmic structures – the baby can be soothed while parents hold, rock and, if they wish to, sing or hum to their baby.
Music therapy does more than just improve bonding. A large study undertaken in 2013 in the US demonstrated other positive effects for babies who receive music therapy in neonatal units. The study showed improved oxygen saturation, better heartbeat regulation, longer periods of sleep, increased weight gain, and, perhaps most importantly, reduced time spent in hospital. These results have been replicated in other studies too.