Each year in Canada, 8% of babies are born prematurely. In the US, that number is 12%. In both countries, premature births are up more than 25% since the 1980s. Although most pregnancies last about 40 weeks, premature or preterm birth is medically defined as childbirth occurring earlier than 37 completed weeks of gestation.
Premature babies, sometimes called preemies, are extremely fragile and have an increased risk of death in the first year of life. Prematurity is the leading cause of newborn death within one month of birth in 25% of cases.
Survival rates for preemies in the NICU have increased over the past several years while the cost of hospitalization has increased. As well, the benefits of using music with preemies has been researched and documented. For example, according to studies done by music therapist Jane Standley at Florida State University, positive outcomes of music with premature infants listening to lullabies had significant reduction in:
• weight loss
• length of stay in NICU/isolette/hospital
• stress behaviors
A new musical device, developed by Dr. Standley, reduces the length of a premature infant’s hospital stay by an average of 5 days. This innovative instrument, known as Pacifier Activated Lullaby (PAL) is now being sold to hospitals through a partnership with Powers Device Technologies Inc.
PAL uses a specially wired pacifier and speaker to provide musical reinforcement each time the baby sucks on it correctly. By continuing the sucking motion, the babies hear more of the pleasing, gentle music. The infants learn to suck while being comforted by the music.
Standley says “Unlike full-term infants, very premature babies come into the world lacking the neurologic ability to coordinate a suck/swallow/breathe response for oral feeding. The longer it takes them to learn this essential skill, the further behind in the growth process they fall. PAL uses musical lullaby reinforcement to speed this process up, helping them feed sooner and leave the hospital sooner.”
Reflecting on the impact of this seemingly simple concept and device, I could have used PAL when our youngest child was born prematurely, at 36 weeks. For the first 4 days, she was in NICU in an isolette, hooked up to machines, intravenous. When we were finally able to begin breastfeeding, her sucking reflex was faint, almost non-existent. It took perseverance and the help of an amazing nurse to stimulate our wee one to latch on and begin to suck. The auditory stimulation and reinforcement would have enhanced the process.
Perhaps these two parents, one dad and one mom, would agree. In any event, the songs they have each written about their personal experience helps us understand and even empathize with both the auditory and emotional perceptions in the NICU.