NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - On a recent day, the soft sounds of a familiar lullaby could be heard in the neonatal intensive care unit at Tulane Lakeside Hospital.
Researchers at Tulane want to know if melodies can be beneficial to newborns, so a music therapy project involving different groups of newborn babies is underway at the hospital.
Pediatrician Meghan Howell, MD., who is also an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Tulane School of Medicine is involved in the project.
"The Tulane Lullaby Project is a study where we're looking at the effects of music on newborns. And we're looking at lots of different newborns. Newborns that are born at term, newborns that are born early, a little bit pre-term or newborns that are withdrawing from medication,” said Howell.
Currently, a little more than two dozen infants are part of the study, but Tulane eventually wants 300 participants.
Chandler Anthony, a graduate student in music therapy at Loyola University, who is also a part of the project, hummed and sang softly as a mother cradled her newborn daughter in the neonatal intensive care unit.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are,” Anthony sang to the newborn.
That infant, who was premature, is not among the group of newborns in the study who were born with symptoms of drug withdrawal.
Still, nationwide many other infants have been exposed to potent drugs like opioids. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says every 15 minutes, a baby is born suffering from opioid withdrawal. It is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome.
Howell discussed some of the symptoms babies can experience.
“Is a constellation of physical symptoms that babies experience withdrawing from opioid medications that mom took prenatally,” said Howell. “It could be elicit opioids like heroin, it could be prescription opioids, including medicines that we actually use to treat addiction can actually cause withdrawal in babies, and it really causes a nervous system dysfunction in these babies. They can be fussy and irritable, hard to console, have difficulty feeding from it.”
Premature babies who were not exposed to drugs in-utero can have complications as well, according to medical professionals.
“When you look at babies that are born early, their nervous systems may not be developed as babies who are born at term,” Howell said.
Anthony said music therapy requires precision.
“We’re very careful about the decibel and noise level, it’s really important for the development of hearing in an infant, especially one that’s going through a lot in the NICU,” Anthony said. “The whole point is to calm and soothe.”
While singing to infants, Anthony periodically glances over at a monitor measuring heart rate, oxygen saturation and respiratory rate. She said it is intentional.
"We're always very careful to be observant of signs of distress and over-stimulation,” said Anthony.
Anthony said her repertoire includes songs that may sound familiar to some newborns.
“Sometimes that means singing a song of kin, which is a song that has been sung to the infant through their gestational development that we implement when they're born and that has a really relaxing result, you know, you can see it on a baby,” Anthony stated.
Howell says the music therapy sessions happen over five consecutive days, alternating between mornings and afternoons.
"Music is such a universal part of the human experience, people have been singing lullabies to babies as far back as we can remember, so there must be a biological benefit to it, and that’s really what we’re trying to find out,” she said.
Anthony uses various genres of music, including rap, by adjusting the tempo, rhythm and volume for the infants.
“We are really open-minded about any sort of music preference and nothing is too extreme, and we will adapt it,” Anthony said. “We’ve done Beyonce’s Halo, we’ve done all sorts of stuff.”
Howell says music therapy is not the same as “music medicine,” and she said Tulane’s study does not use recorded music.
“Some use live music with a music therapist, and some are limited to just recorded music that the babies are exposed to," Howell said. “We’re not doing recorded music. We know from our medical background that early human interaction is very critical during the newborn period and so we think that having that interaction with a music therapist would be maximally beneficial for babies.”
There have been other studies on music therapy.
One such study titled, “The Effects of Music Therapy on Vital Signs, Feeding, and Sleep in Premature Infants” posted on the National Institutes of Health site says:
”The informed, intentional therapeutic use of live sound and parent-preferred lullabies applied by a certified music therapist can influence cardiac and respiratory function. Entrained with a premature infant's observed vital signs, sound and lullaby may improve feeding behaviors and sucking patterns and may increase prolonged periods of quiet-alert states.”
Howell said at Tulane, they are looking for additional data.
"Some of the previous studies that have been done show that music can lower heart rate, can lower respiratory rate and help babies regulate their nervous systems but we need more definitive data which is what we're looking for,” Howell said.
Mandy Leger, the mother of one of the premature infants enrolled in the study, noticed an impact of the music therapy right away.
“She’s doing great, really good,” Leger said. “Even with all the noise in the background, it’s like she picked up on that note and it relaxed her.”
She plans to continue exposing her baby to music once she leaves the hospital.
"Yes, we have music all the time,” Leger stated.
And as part of this reporting, FOX 8 stresses that there is no opioid or other drug involvement with Leger or her infant daughter. They are participants in the study simply because the child was born premature.
Meanwhile, Howell said Tulane will continue gathering data from the various categories of participating infants.
"We’re still in the early processes of collecting all of that data, but anecdotally, what we’ve gotten from parents is that they really enjoyed being in the study, they feel like it helps their baby calm. I had one dad tell us, ‘Oh, it felt like the baby just melted into my arms.' Most of the parents are really excited by it,” Howell said.
The project began in August 2017.