When music therapist Christine Vaskas works with babies in the neonatal intensive-care unit, the effect of her interventions are almost always immediately apparent.
"If I see the heart rate is high or jumping around, and I provide an intervention," Vaskas said, "all of a sudden I see the heart rate stabilize. It's bringing the baby back to the womb in an auditory way."
Vaskas, who has been a music therapist for five years, conducts clinical work and supervises interns and fellows at NICUs at three hospitals in the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. The NICU program, First Sounds: Rhythm, Breath and Lullaby, is one of several under the umbrella of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, which offers music therapy in medical settings.
In 2013, a study led by Joanne Loewy, the Armstrong Center's director, found that certain live sounds, when provided in a music therapy context, could influence the respiratory and cardiac functions of premature infants. Those interventions could improve feeding behavior, enhance sleep and decrease stress, according to the randomized clinical trial, which spanned two years and 11 facilities in the Northeast.
About 1 in 10 infants in the U.S. is born preterm, or before 37 weeks, according to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These babies are at higher risk of serious disability or death, and in 2013, about a third of infant deaths were caused by preterm issues. Those who survive can have trouble breathing or eating. They also often have developmental delays and other medical problems.
The music therapy Vaskas provides is not your conventional Bach or Mozart drifting passively in the background. These are sounds directed at the baby and the parents, and they draw on three specific techniques developed by Loewy: rhythm, breath and lullaby.