The healing power of music in the NICU

“We’re helping the baby learn how to tolerate this environment they’re now in. They shouldn’t be here yet.”

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There’s a growing trend in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU) across the country that’s helping premature babies get home sooner. It’s music therapy and it’s filling hospital rooms right here in Louisville.

At nine weeks old, James Ellis has only known the NICU at Norton Women’s and Children’s Hospital as his home. Born 3 months early, he weighed just over 2 pounds. 

“I think he was 4 days old when we were first allowed to hold him,” Katie Lloyd, his mother said.

Snuggled against Lloyd, as she sings ‘You are my Sunshine,’ it’s a calming environment that could put any baby to sleep. But the music filling this room, holds a greater purpose.

“How the infant tolerates and processes light, sound, touch,” Alex Ruffner, a NICU music therapist at Norton Women’s and Children’s said. “We’re helping the baby learn how to tolerate this environment they’re now in. They shouldn’t be here yet.”

Ruffner’s the only NICU music therapist in Louisville.

“I walk in and parents would be like, ‘uhh..I thought that was joke,'” she said.

But they quickly learn how nurturing music can be.

“They first put me in one of these chairs and told me, you can’t rock him yet,” Lloyd said. “He’s not used to that motion while being held. So, to get him to that experience that so many people take for granted, like feeding him while singing to him softly in a rocking chair. That’s a lot of experience coming at him at one time. Music therapy helps build up to that slowly, so that we can have that common mom and baby experience together.”

She sticks to an easy rhythm, three chords or less, with songs that are highly repetitive and then gets mom and dad to join in.

“Your baby does not care if you’re a good singer or not. They love your voice no matter what and they want to hear you sing,” Ruffner said.

It’s all in the tone and the touch. 

“Premature infants are really good at letting us know when they’re uncomfortable or overwhelmed,” Ruffner said. “So we’ll just keep looking for any of those cues of overstimulation that he might show us, finger displays, halt hands, any increased workup breathing.”

The music lasts as long as the NICU stay improving everything from the baby’s vitals and weight gain to their breathing and eating habits.

“It was interesting to know music could prepare him for so many things past listening to music,” Lloyd said.

Every day she’d sing, waiting for the day she could take him home. Just last week, her wish came true and the family of four was reunited.

Contact reporter Brooke Hasch atbhasch@whas11.com. Follow her onTwitter (@WHAS11Hasch) andFacebook.

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