Music therapy

Research shows that music therapy has a profound impact on premature infants. We asked Clarissa Karlsson, a board-certified music therapist at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to explain the benefits.

How does music therapy benefit preemies?


Music therapy can positively affect premature infants' physiological stability, increase opportunities for bonding and attachment with caregivers, and provide appropriate developmental stimulation. Babies born before term are not as neurologically mature or physiologically stable as full-term babies. This makes it difficult for them to filter the vastly increased amounts of stimulation outside the womb.

For example, loud transient noises have been shown to have negative short-term effects on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems of neonates. By imitating the sounds of the womb and carefully entraining (i.e., timing) them with the baby's breathing rate, as little as 15 minutes of music therapy can positively affect the baby's respiratory and heart rates.

Does the type of music matter, or whether it's vocal or instrumental, live or recorded?

How the music is provided is more important than what the music is. The parents' voices are already familiar to the infant from their time in utero, so they can provide comfort no matter how you think you sound! Instruments can also be used to re-create womb sounds (a gato box or box drum for the heartbeat, an ocean CD for the movement of placental fluid). Recorded music is not ideal, because it can't respond to the baby's physiological or behavioral cues.

What's the advantage of parents working with a music therapist?

Premature infants are often too neurologically immature to handle being held. Studies show that singing lullabies to preemies increases the infants' time in a quiet-alert state. [This means the baby is focused on and connecting with the person singing.]  A music therapist can teach parents how to adapt lullabies by changing meter, rhythm, vocal register and volume to make them more developmentally friendly, and show parents how to recognize the baby's withdrawal and disengagement cues, which happens when they are overstimulated. Abigail Green

To find a certified music therapist, visit the American Music Therapy Association at musictherapy.org.