Music Therapy in the NICU

Marylhurst music therapy student Whitney McCann and program director Laura Beer make weekly visits to the young patients in OHSU’s neonatal intensive care unit.

Music Therapy in the NICU, Marylhurst University

Photo: OHSU News

For nearly 30 years, Laura Beer has been providing music therapy for special needs children, patients in hospice care and people with dementia.

“Music is the one phenomenon that affects our bodies and our emotions all at once,” she said. “It has the ability to treat the whole person.”

But even she is amazed to see how the tiny patients in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital respond when she strums her guitar. For the past year and a half, she has been volunteering in the NICU every week, her lullaby music providing a soothing counter to the beeps and whooshes and stress of the hospital environment.

Music therapy in NICU settings follows a prescribed set of protocols to promote well-being for the patients, their parents and staff. Instruments used range from soft drums and flutes to an “ocean disk,” which creates gentle, whooshing sounds, similar to sounds heard in the womb.

Beer takes requests from parents, caregivers and family members, and has learned lullabies in multiple languages.

Above all, gauging the impact of the music on the tiny patients is key. On a recent visit to the NICU, Beer knelt on the ground near a rocking chair where nurse Ann Babbitt rocked a tiny preemie. Beer brought her guitar close to the child, playing simple chords and humming gently. She punctuated her song with frequent long, deep sighs.

A smile tugged at the corner of the baby’s sleeping face, and it snuggled deeper into the nurse’s lap. As Beer moved on to play at other children’s bedsides, their monitors repeatedly showed a slowing of their respiratory rates and increase in oxygen rates.

Music Therapy in the NICU, Marylhurst University

Photo: OHSU News

On this visit Beer was accompanied by a Marylhurst University music therapy student Whitney McCann.

“Thursday mornings have become the highlight of my week, for sure,” said McCann.

As Beer watched, McCann played for one last patient during their visit. Sondra George held her son, William, in her arms, rocking him gently. Beer hopes families like William’s will continue singing to their children after they are discharged from the hospital.

“Music powerfully influences the way these infants respond,” Beer said. “It’s a natural way to facilitate bonding and promote attachment between the parent and the infant.”

This news item is an excerpt from an article by Kristyna Wentz-Graff and Lisa McMahan published by OHSU News March 27, 2017. » Read the full article

Laura Beer is an associate professor, director of the music therapy program, and chair of the Department of Counseling & Creative Therapies at Marylhurst University.