This article was originally featured in HealthHub: The Brigham and Women’s Hospital Health Blog.
There’s a difference between surviving and thriving, and it turns out that a mother’s touch, or at least her sounds, can make the difference between one and the other.
According to new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), babies born extremely prematurely (26-32 weeks’ gestation) have fewer heart and respiratory complications when they are able to hear their own mother’s voice and heartbeat played through a soundtrack into their incubator.
It’s important to note that the research does not address survival rates. The technology and clinical expertise of leading Newborn Intensive Care Units (NICUs), such as the Brigham and Women’s Hospital NICU, are already highly successful at saving the lives of premature infants. The problem is that because they are underdeveloped, preterm infants experience high rates of lung and heart complications, including apnea (a pause in breathing that lasts longer than 20 seconds) and bradycardia (periods of significantly slow heart rate).
Like a mother’s womb, NICU incubators regulate temperature and humidity. And highly skilled nurses and care givers ensure that the premature babies receive adequate nutrients, oxygen, and attention. But researcher Amir Lahav, director of the Neonatal Research Lab at BWH, thought something else was missing – the simulation of the maternal sounds that a baby would hear in the womb.
To find out whether maternal sounds really do make a difference, Lahav enrolled 14 extremely premature infants that were admitted to the BWH NICU in a study. The infants were assigned to receive an auditory intervention of maternal sound stimulation (MSS), four times per day throughout their NICU hospitalization. Each infant received a personalized MSS, a soundtrack that consisted of his/her own mother’s voice and heartbeat. The recording was played into the infant’s incubator through a specialized micro audio system developed in Lahav’s lab.
Overall, researchers found that abnormal breathing patterns (or events) occurred at a much lower frequency when the infants were exposed to MSS versus to routine hospital noise and sounds. This effect was statistically significant in infants of 33 weeks’ gestation or older.
“Our findings show that there may be a window of opportunity to improve the physiological health of these babies born prematurely using non-pharmalogical treatments, such as auditory stimulation,” says Lahav. “However, given our small sample size of 14 infants, further research is needed to determine if this intervention could have an impact on the care and health of preterm infants.”