By Janis Siegel, Jewish Sound Columnist
Most mothers know that singing to their baby can be a special time between mother and child and that they don’t have to sound like Barbra Streisand or Taylor Swift to do it.
But if your new bundle of joy was born prematurely, as, globally, 15 million babies are every year, put away any inhibitions you may have about vocalizing and start pulling together your repertoire.
Using the Kangaroo Method or KC, where a mother holds her diapered-only baby uprightly against her chest, skin against skin, and a cloth covering his or her back, Mom sings away in tranquil tones while the little one snuggles inside of her shirt.
Singing to a stable, premature baby significantly improves a mother’s well-being and also encourages the child’s development and overall health, according to Dr. Shmuel Arnon from the department of Neonatology at the Meir Medical Center and Hospital in Kfar Saba, Israel.
Arnon told The Jewish Sound that for now, the benefits seem to come from the mother’s voice.
“The theory is the preterm infant can only perceive high pitch voices. Therefore, Father’s voice might not be as beneficial as the mother’s voice,” said Arnon. “However, during Kangaroo Care there are many other senses that work, i.e., tactile, odor, touch, breathing, vibration, etc., that the father is not theoretically different from the mother. That is what we are studying now.”
The 2014 study, published in the journal “Acta Paediatrica,” compared the effects of KC and maternal singing on a stable preterm baby against the outcomes using KC alone with 86 mother-baby pairs.
“The mother was instructed to sing with a repetitive, soothing tone, softly, simply and with slow tempo,” wrote Arnon in the study report. “She was asked to include lullabies, preferably those that she sang during pregnancy, in her preferred language.”
Using an instrument that measured sound levels placed next to the baby’s ear, mothers were told to maintain a decibel level between 60 and 70 DB.
“Authors who have tried to combine music and KC have failed to show marked benefit for preterm infants,” wrote Arnon.
“Studies have shown that just after birth the infant is reacting only to his mother’s voice,” he told The Jewish Sound, “whether it is a biological connection in the genome of familiarity, hearing his mother during pregnancy, I am not aware of studies examining this.”
In other 2013 research published in Pediatrics, researchers observed 272 similar preterm infants that were at least eight months old who were exposed to live musicians playing to the “preemies.” It improved a baby’s alertness, quiet time, sleep time, increased the baby’s level of oxygen, improved its sucking responses, and helped the parents to feel more relaxed.
Arnon’s study using the mother’s voice analyzed the responses of 86 stable preterm infants between 32 and 36 weeks of maturity to measure maternal anxiety and the infant’s behavior. Each phase of singing time and quiet time lasted for 20 minutes with a recovery period of 10 minutes.
His team found a significant lowering of maternal anxiety and the baby’s heart rate was significantly more stable in both the higher and lower heartbeat frequencies.
However, a mother’s voice conferred additional benefits to the child.
“A mother singing to her child ‘encouraged perceptual memory and learning in infants,’” according to the study. “Exposing infants to their mothers’ voices in NICUs has been shown to increase oxygen saturation, decrease episodic apnea and bradycardia [a slow heart rate], and improve weight gain and feeding tolerance.”
Meir’s team said the combination of the tactile and the maternal auditory stimulation might mimic the sounds that a fetus hears in the womb.
Because preemies are born with underdeveloped organs and nervous systems, the main focus of Arnon’s NIDCAP unit is to support the families of premature babies and to facilitate the parents’ and the child’s health and development.
Parents whose premature babies are cared for in the Meir Medical Center’s NICU are trained in both techniques to use when they take their child home.
In addition to experimenting with KC and a father’s voice, Arnon will continue to experiment with the combined KC and maternal singing techniques to see if babies might benefit from the continued use of the therapy as they grow.
“Further studies evaluating the long-term effects of this bimodal exposure, and whether continuing this therapy during infancy facilitates gross motor skills, mental processing, perceptual memory, social behavior and learning, are warranted,” he said.
Longtime The Jewish Sound correspondent and freelance journalist Janis Siegel has covered international health research for SELF magazine and campaigns for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.