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Musical Pacifier Is Helping NICU Preemies Develop Feeding Skills

A high-tech pacifier is helping premature babies learn to eat and bond with their parents through musical therapy while they're in the NICU. The pacifier, known as the Pacifier Activated Lullaby (PAL), has a tiny speaker and plays a song when the baby sucks. Music therapists at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital have worked with parents to record songs for babies to develop their feeding skills. The music, as well the voices of their parents, are used as a reward for eating.

"They learn really quickly that when they suck, they get this beautiful lullaby sound," said Jenna Bollard, the expressive arts therapies manager at the hospital.

For preemies born six weeks early, the muscles and reflexes that enable sucking, swallowing and breathing to occur simultaneously haven't fully developed. By building their muscles and reflexes, babies can transition more quickly from feeding tubes to drinking milk either from a bottle or by breastfeeding., which means they can head home sooner.

Babies tend to "thrive better at home than they will in the hospital," said Jayne Standley, the Florida State University music therapist who invented the device. "Because when they go home, they can be held. They can be nurtured."

Studies show that when mothers sing to their babies during skin-to-skin contact, the infants' heart rates stabilize, which thereby reduces the anxiety of new mothers. In the hospital, music therapists teach both parents and nurses to use songs and sounds that are developmentally suitable. "We definitely see a difference in the babies when they hear the music," said NICU nurse Sanna Howell. "We see their vitals change for the better."

The FDA-approved device is currently being used at hospitals across the US, though music therapists are gathering data in order to make the PAL a standard part of preemie care at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital. The device helps preemies start feeding faster, which results in fewer days spent in the NICU. Given that each day in the hospital costs thousands of dollars, the impact is significant since one in 10 babies are born early in the US.

When Jamie Middleton's son Julian was born 11 weeks early, he weighed only two pounds, 13 ounces and was connected to numerous machines in the NICU. "He was very, very tiny and bright red," she told KPCC/LAist. "He had a respirator and feeding tubes, IV. It was hard to see."

In the days before she was able to hold him, participating in the music therapy program made Middleton feel connected to her son. "There's not a lot you can do as a NICU parent. And a lot of times you have limitations in how you can comfort your baby," she said.

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Middleton worked with Sandra Cheah, a music therapist, to rework the John Lennon classic "Beautiful Boy" as a lullaby for her son. She said the experience was one of the "little rays of sunshine" during his stay in the NICU. Middleton and her husband were able to take their son home after eight weeks and have continued to integrate music into their child-rearing. They have created a special playlist for Julian and will add new songs every year until his 18th birthday.

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