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Missouri researchers to see if music boosts development for premature babies

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Angel Campbell
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Ayla Campbell was born three months early, after her mother, Angel, experienced life-threatening complications late in her pregnancy. The first time Ayla received music therapy in the MU Health Care neonatal intensive care unit, her vital signs improved and she smiled. “I would have never believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes," Angel Campbell said. "I just sat there and cried.”

Music therapy can reduce stress in premature infants and help them recover from medical procedures. University of Missouri researchers are now studying whether music therapy also affects their long-term brain development.

Angel Campbell was six months pregnant when she developed a rare, life-threatening health condition.

Shortly after she arrived at MU Health Care in Columbia, Missouri, Campbell’s doctors diagnosed her with a serious pregnancy complication known as HELLP syndrome, which causes high blood pressure, liver failure and stroke.

Her daughter, Ayla, was born by emergency cesarean section in March 2021, three months early. Doctors rushed her to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. “She was a little over a pound, like a little Barbie doll,” Campbell said. “You could hold her in the palm of your hand.”

As part of her treatment in the NICU, Ayla received regular music therapy. The technique, which involves humming, lullabies and gentle touch, can reduce stress in premature infants and help them recover from medical procedures. University of Missouri researchers are now studying whether music therapy also affects their long-term brain development.

The hospital is often a stressful place for premature infants, MU Health Care music therapist Emily Pivovarnik said.

“They’re overstimulated by alarms and bright lights,” said Pivovarnik, who is leading the study. “But they’re also having a lack of stimulation, because they’re not being held or touched or talked to like a typically developing infant may be at home.”

When introduced gradually, music therapy can be a form of positive stimulation for premature babies, she said.

Music therapy has become an increasingly common treatment in NICUs across the U.S. over the past two decades, as a growing number of studies have highlighted its positive effects on babies born prematurely.

Benefits have included lower heart rates and shorter stays in the NICU. Ayla Campbell was about 2 months old the first time Pivovarnik came to visit — and the music therapy had an immediate effect, her mother said.

“She smiled, and then her oxygen levels went up and her heart rate went down,” Angel Campbell said. “I would have never believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. I just sat there and cried.”

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MU Health Care
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MU Health Care music therapist Emily Pivovarnik sings to Ayla Campbell. The treatment can help reduce stress for premature babies in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit and introduce them to positive stimulation.

MU researchers are launching a new study to understand whether music therapy can also have lasting benefits for infants’ brain development.

The team plans to follow 130 premature infants, some of whom will receive music therapy two to three times per week in the MU Health Care NICU.

To test whether music therapy affects long-term development, the researchers will visit the babies for two years after they leave the hospital to test their motor skills, communication and emotional development.

A baby’s brain continues to grow and develop long after they leave the hospital, said Olugbemisola Obi, medical director of the NICU at MU Health Care.

“By following these babies longer, we hope to be able to see how — and to what extent — they have developed appropriate ‘catch-up skills,’” Obi said.

After 252 days in the NICU and multiple surgeries, including a procedure to repair a collapsed lung, Ayla Campbell went home in November.

But as she approaches her first birthday, music remains an important part of Ayla’s life.

“There’s a lot of singing in this house,” Angel Campbell said.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Shahla Farzan is a general assignment reporter and weekend newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes most recently from KBBI Public Radio in Homer, Alaska, where she covered issues ranging from permafrost thaw to disputes over prayer in public meetings. A science nerd to the core, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. She has also worked as an intern at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and a podcaster for BirdNote. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, combing flea markets for tchotchkes, and curling up with a good book.
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