An innovative research study is under way at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston to test whether the sounds of a mother's heartbeat and voice can help premature infants better grow and thrive while they remain in hospital care. The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine, involved a professional recording studio at the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to allow neuroscientist Amir Lahav--who himself became the parent of premature twins five years ago--to measure whether the soothing sounds of their mothers can help premature babies develop.
"The majority of babies born before 32 weeks' gestation, even without a diagnosed brain injury, are likely to have learning, cognitive, social or sensory problems down the road," says Lahav, who is now a pediatric researcher specializing in neonatal medicine and director of the Neonatal Research Lab at Brigham and Women's. "That tells us that something we do is still not perfect."
Could the lack of exposure to maternal sounds at a critical time period account at least in part for subsequent problems with language, attention deficit, learning disabilities, even autism? Lahav doesn't think it's far-fetched. "If a baby is in an isolated environment with only the sounds of machines and noise, it could possibly translate into problems with social behavior," he says.
In the small study, Lahav and colleagues played recordings of moms who spoke, read or sang, to a group of 14 babies born between 26 to 32 weeks, for 45 minutes, four times a day. They found a significant reduction in problems such as apnea, in which breathing stops occasionally for more than 20 seconds, and bradycardia, in which the heart beat slows down significantly, when babies listened to their personalized MSS, or maternal sound stimulation. Think of it like iTunes for babies.
All babies had fewer adverse episodes when exposed to maternal sounds, but the measurement was only statistically significant in babies 33 weeks or older, according to the study. That might be because by 32 weeks, the auditory brain system is more developed, and the babies are able to process the sounds better. In general, Lahav hypothesizes, babies who hear their mothers may have reduced cortisol levels, which correlate with less stress.
Image: Recording studio, via Shutterstock.