Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Can Playing Maternal Voice and Heartbeat Sounds Benefit Premies?

Nearly five years ago, Amir Lahav became a parent of twins born prematurely at 25 weeks. They weighed just over 1 pound each.

Welcoming two newborns into the family certainly changed his life, but as a neuroscientist, it also ended up changing the course of his research.

Lahav studies how the brain processes sounds, and worked primarily with neurologically impaired adults, but with the birth of his twins, his paternal instinct kicked in.

He approached the chief of newborn medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where the babies lay in incubators.

“Could I put a recording of my wife's voice in there?” Lahav asked, convinced that hearing their mother’s soothing tones would improve the babies’ development. The answer: It's certainly worthwhile.

Using his computer, Lahav recorded his wife’s voice telling the babies they’re fighters and urging them to be strong.

He also included some soothing piano music, figuring it could prove relaxing for preemies. Then he tinkered with the sound to make it resemble what a baby would hear in utero.

While we hear through air, babies in the womb process sound through fluid so what passes as hearing consists of more low-frequency vibrations. (Think about slipping beneath the surface of the bath as someone talks to you, or try speaking while putting a finger in each ear.) “It’s as if babies are living in a micro-subwoofer,” explains Lahav.

The twins seemed to like the recordings, and doctors and nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) were intrigued.

Moreover, it proved therapeutic for Lahav and his wife. “It was not a controlled trial,” says Lahav, “but just a crazy father trying to do something because especially in the case of premature babies, you feel very helpless.”

Once his twins left the hospital, Lahav returned to thank the chief for letting him experiment.

One thing led to another, and they found themselves in a serious conversation about prematurity and how the focus of neonatal medicine has changed from saving the lives of these babies, doctors have grown expert at keeping preemies alive, to helping them grow into healthy children.

Studies have shown that premature infants are at greater risk of having low IQ and developing metabolic or chronic conditions in young adulthood that can shorten their lives.

Could keeping them bathed in mom’s comforting sounds lower the incidence of some of these adverse effects on their health? Lahav wound up with a job offer to find out.

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