Advances in neuroscience demonstrate that babies need much more than cursory attention to their basic physical needs. Babies from birth, whatever their gestation, require love, sensory stimulation including movement, skin to skin experience with their mothers and the opportunity to engage eye to eye with their mothers. Babies are sensitive, social and interactive; constantly seeking to engage; adjusting, learning and developing according to environmental cues, feedback and experiences.
The environmental needs of babies who are born prematurely require thoughtful consideration as they are often in nurseries, handled by strangers even though they are generally kind and well meaning and subject to painful and unpleasant stimuli.
Exciting work, exploring the needs of premature babies is leading to brilliant discoveries by pioneers such as Dr Nils Bergman, who was the first to highlight the tactile needs of premature babies and developed kangaroo mothercare, or skin to skin baby wearing for premature infants and their mothers.
Dr Bergman demonstrated that premature babies who had 'kangaroo care' stabilise better and faster, cry less, fuss less, grow better and have enhanced brain development. Mother/baby bonding is improved too.
The recognition that babies are people too and thrive in an enriched environment has had another boost.
A new study carried out by Dr. Dror Mandel and Dr. Ronit Lubetzky of the Tel Aviv Medical Center affiliated with Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine has found that pre-term infants exposed to thirty minutes of Mozart's music in one session, once per day expend less energy -- and therefore need fewer calories to grow rapidly -- than when they are not "listening" to the music.
"It's not exactly clear how the music is affecting them, but it makes them calmer and less likely to be agitated," says Dr. Mendel, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University.
In the study, Dr. Mandel and Dr. Lubetzky and their team measured the physiological effects of music by Mozart played to pre-term newborns for 30 minutes. After the music was played, the researchers measured infants' energy expenditure again, and compared it to the amount of energy expended when the baby was at rest. After "hearing" the music, the infant expended less energy, a process that can lead to faster weight gain.
A "musical environment" for preemies
When it comes to preemies, one of the main priorities for doctors is to get the baby up to an acceptable body weight so he or she can be sent home. At the hospital, preterm babies may be exposed to infections and other illnesses, and a healthy body weight keeps them immune to other problems in the future.
While the scientists are not sure what occasioned the response, Dr. Mandel offers one hypothesis. "The repetitive melodies in Mozart's music may be affecting the organizational centers of the brain's cortex," he says. "Unlike Beethoven, Bach or Bartok, Mozart's music is composed with a melody that is highly repetitive. This might be the musical explanation. For the scientific one, more investigation is needed."
The study came about through an international project led by the U.S.-based consortium NIDCAP, whose goal is to create a set of standard practices to optimize the health and well-being of neonates. A number of environmental effects, such as tactile stimulation and room lighting, are already known to affect the survival and health of these very susceptible babies.
A sonata a day keeps the doctor away
Wonderful to see this work steadily improving the lot of premature babies and their mothers. However, we need to also focus on preventing prematurity as premature babies have extra risks and potential burdens to deal with as they grow outside the womb. One to one midwifery care with a midwife who respects, listens and cares for the individual woman provides a space place for the woman to explore becoming a mother; process her stressful feelings and develop self confidence. In such a capacity building environment, stress hormones are diminished because women feel valued and in control; inflammatory processes are not triggered and babies grow better and to term.