Time and time again, certified music therapist Laura Beer has witnessed the healing power of music.
For nearly 30 years, Beer has been providing music therapy for special needs children, patients in hospice care and people with dementia. She is also an associate professor and director of Music Therapy at Marylhurst University.
“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.
Research has shown that live music in neonatal units can help lower the heart and respiratory rates in premature babies, as well as increase their oxygen level, improve sucking response and weight gain, decrease stress responses and aid in sleep--all of which support a child’s development.
“Babies are developmentally hardwired for language and for music,” said Beer, who offers her expertise pro bono. “One of the risks that’s possible in a NICU environment is the babies start to attune to the sounds and the voices and what’s going on around them, which isn’t developmentally what they need to grow and thrive.”
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.
The music style is carefully modulated in terms of tempo and dynamics. Beer adjusts her songs to help give context to the sounds emanating from equipment in the NICU.
“A lot of the machines are a B flat,” she said. “The music gives context so the beeping isn’t just a random sound anymore.”
Beer takes requests from parents, caregivers and family members, and has learned lullabies in multiple languages.
“The aim is to take any song that has meaning and turn it into a lullaby so it becomes a connector, a bonding agent between parents and patient,” she said. “I’ve had requests ranging from Nirvana to The Beatles to Jim Croce.”
Beer uses a decibel meter to monitor volume, which is critical in this environment. “The babies physiologically are very sensitive, many of them are underdeveloped in terms of their hearing abilities. We have to be very careful to keep our playing under 70 decibels.”
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.
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.”