Babies born too early face a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) until they’re healthy enough to go home. Anxious parents often feel helpless, as if all they can do is watch and wait. A recent study from Vanderbilt University Children’s Hospital has found that parents can help significantly. The research team used music and the mother’s voice to encourage preemies to feed themselves effectively. The babies hearing mom’s voice just five days in a row were able to eat better and be released from NICU sooner than those that didn’t hear mom singing lullabies.

Newborn baby and motherA baby’s ability to eat well is one marker of health and is an important factor in a premature baby's release from the NICU. There’s a great deal of coordination involved with eating so preemies must learn how to effectively suck and swallow their own saliva while continuing to breathe before they can go home. Pacifiers are their primary learning tool.

Dr. Nathalie Maitre is director of the NICU follow-up clinics at the Tennessee University hospital system. She and her research team used a special type of pacifier in a study involving 94 infants.

The pacifier is FDA-approved and sold commercially. It contains a sensor that activates a pre-recorded song when the baby is sucking properly and with adequate strength.

Forty-six of the babies were randomly chosen to be in the pacifier-activated music (PAM) group and the remaining 48 were in the control group getting traditional care. All 94 babies, some of whom had brain injuries, were:


  • Between 34 and 36 weeks gestational age
  • In stable condition
  • Able to breathe on their own
  • Dependent on a feeding tube for more than half its food intake

Olena Chorna, a music therapist, strategically selected two lullabies for the study — “Hush Little Baby” and “Snuggle Puppy” — because they are repetitive, simple, and fall within just one octave range. Anything else would be too complex for the babies’ still-developing brains to grasp.

Chorna taught the two lullabies to the mothers of the babies in the PAM group and recorded them singing. Each PAM-group infant used a pacifier that activated its mother’s songs when the baby demonstrated effective sucking skills. For 15 minutes five days in a row, the PAM preemies were given the pacifiers before feeding time.

Improved feeding was noted almost immediately. By the end of the study, the PAM babies were:

  • Eating twice as fast as those in the control group
  • Eating twice as much
  • Able to stop tube feedings a week sooner
  • Released from NICU 20% sooner

According to Maitre, “Mom’s voice is an excellent stimulant.”

Source: Maitre, Nathalie L, et al. “A Pacifier-Activated Music Player With Mother’s Voice Improves Oral Feeding in Preterm Infants (abstract).” Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Feb 14, 2014. Web. Mar 2, 2014.