In neonatal intensive care units (neonatal ICUs) there is a lot of noise: doors closing and opening, people talking, air devices, among others. This noise can affect premature babies who are recovering or developing in incubators.
Those most affected by this environment are big premature babies, those born before week 32. That this they have not fully developed either physically or cognitively.
Statistic of babies born as premature: Switzerland and Spain
Although scientific evidence assures that medical advances have greatly improved their survival. Premature babies are still more sensitive to suffering from difficulties in their neural development.
And for this to improve, experts and teachers from Geneva (Switzerland) have decided to trust music. Music that are written especially for them. In Switzerland, about 800 babies are large premature babies per year, which represents 1% of births in the country. For example, in Spain, about 500 are born prematurely each year.
They are born between weeks 24 and 32 of gestation. That is, there would still be two to four months left for a full-term pregnancy, which means that their brain is less developed. The way of developing it is in the incubator.
With very different conditions than if they were in their mother’s belly. If we put together the immaturity of the brain and an environment that is sensory, not suitable. It could be one of the explanations for why neural connections do not develop normally.
Research on brain development in premature babies published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
The initial idea of the researchers was how to improve the environment of babies in the ICU. And they knew that music was an option, but which one?
According to the director of the research “We were very fortunate because we had the composer Andreas Vollenweider, with experience in musical projects with vulnerable populations and who showed a lot of interest in creating music for the great premature babies. The composer had the help of a nurse specialized in intensive care”.
The melody had to be adapted to them and accompany them when they woke up when they went to sleep, and that it sounded during the sleep-wake phases. The instruments are finally chosen were the pungi flute or snake charmer. The one that worked best – the harp, and pieces of a bell.
The composer made three eight-minute pieces. The study was based on differentiating two groups of children. Some listened to music five times a week and others nothing. The resonances they did after the experiment showed “differences in the neural connections in the brain of the babies.
Results of the research
Results obtained reveal that the neural networks of premature babies who have listened to this music, and in particular in terms of sensory and cognitive functions, are developing much better and it was incredible.
The most excited children managed to calm down. Furthermore, the connections between the brain network of prominence (it is the one that allows discerning the importance of the stimuli) and the auditory, sensorimotor, frontal, thalamus, and precuneus networks (a part of the brain that allows relating the external information with that of the senses).
The organization of the neural networks was very similar to that of full-term babies. The first children who participated in the project are now 6 years old. The age when cognitive problems begin to be detectable. Now, after the results, the researchers have to evaluate them again.
This study has a very novel conclusion because it is the first time in the world that the effect of music in premature infants with magnetic resonance imaging has been investigated. And it is shown that there is a change in the brain.
Juan Arnáez, neonatologist, and director of the Nene Foundation, a non-profit organization whose main objective is the training, research, and dissemination of neurological problems of the new-born.
He explained that “we knew that music was good for the brain at any age, but we did not know that changes occur in a developing brain”.
It is a very important advance. How to avoid noise in neonatal ICUs is something that has been studied for a long time.
Large preterm infants are characterized, among other things, because they have immaturity in neuronal connections and are at greater risk of suffering from a haemorrhage due to the fragility of their blood vessels.
At birth, and moving from the womb, where the noise is muffled by the amniotic fluid, to an incubator can be very abrupt for babies. And solving this noise pollution in the units is essential. What needs to be investigated further is what real effect music has in the long term.
According to the expert, in Spain, some hospitals play music in their neonatal ICUs, but it is not something generalized. What is being done is: reduce the light, covering the incubator; allow families to be in the unit 24 hours a day.
So, those premature babies can drink milk from their mothers from minute zero, and that there are mechanisms that control decibels to control noise.