Music Therapy in the NICU

Hello and happy new year!! I hope your 2021 is off to a good start so far :) My new year’s resolution was that I would update this blog more often, and look how well that’s going so far...

To begin this new year, I've decided to create a series looking at music therapy through the lifespan, from the early years all the way through to the last stages of life. Music therapy is such a broadly applied practice and can have wonderful effects on many different areas of life. However, this can make music therapy difficult to understand so I thought this series would help to shed some light on the various ways music therapy can be applied.

To begin this new series, I decided to focus on the very first stages of life. Music therapy has been widely applied in the neonatal intensive care unit for some time now and can be very effective in dealing with the stresses and issues that can arise from premature births. Aside from the issues that come hand-in-hand with early births, infants in the NICU can be distressed by the clinical environment they are now in, with it’s beeping monitors, flashing lights and various medical procedures. This over-stimulation of the senses can be quite overwhelming for these infants, as they’ve come from the safety of their mother’s womb. Music therapy has shown to be helpful for infants in the NICU because of it’s soothing effects and the opportunity for bonding between parents and infants that it can provide. Music therapy can do more than just soothe the infant though - it also becomes a support system for the parents as they navigate this unexpected and stressful situation.

So how does it actually work? Typically, music therapy consists of a therapist and client engaging in active or receptive music making together, in one of the many different methods available. However, playing loud or complicated music to an infant in such an overstimulating environment would not only be unhelpful, it could actually be more distressing for the infant. It’s been shown that noise above certain decibels is incredibly stressful for premature infants, so there are guidelines in place to minimise noise in the NICU. Because of this, music therapy in this context usually consists of very soft humming or unaccompanied singing, and will often involve the mother’s voice instead of the music therapist.

During development in the womb, the infant learns to recognise the mother’s voice and even distinguish it from others. This provides a connection between the infant and mother and can be important for bonding between them. This is why the mother’s voice is used over the therapists voice, as the infant already knows her voice and can find comfort in it due to the familiarity of it. Within the stressful environment of the NICU, this connection between infant and mother can be immensely important in soothing the infant and helping them deal with the sensory overload they are experiencing.

The mother also experiences stress and emotional trauma during this time. Often there can be feelings of guilt or anxiety over the fate of their child, as the pregnancy did not reach full term. In order to help the mother during this time, it’s important that she can be involved in the process of treating her child. This can help her to feel like she’s more connected to her child and is active in their recovery. This is often done by using recordings of the mother’s voice which can be played consistently through the infants stay in the NICU to provide a similar experience as they would have in the womb. The mother can either sing or read a story, or even just talk to their child, all of which will be helpful in soothing their child and also helps the mother to feel like they’ve contributed to their child’s recovery.

In addition to the soothing effects it brings, music therapy can also be helpful in the neurologic development of infants in the NICU. Premature infants often experience neurodevelopmental delays, due to their shortened time in the womb, which can lead to neurological difficulties later in life. It’s been shown that combatting these effects in the earliest stages of development can help the child to recover from any deficits that could have been caused by the premature birth. Listening to music is a neurologically stimulating activity, as well as being pleasurable. Music is an organised, purposeful acoustic experience and requires the brain to process many aspects simultaneously- including melody, rhythm, tone etc. This processing can help to stimulate neurological development in neonates and potentially avoid neurological delays in the infant. Additionally to these factors, music is a non-invasive treatment for neurological issues. This is an important distinction to other medical procedures as it can be used as an early intervention strategy for neurological problems without creating any additional stress to the infant, if used within the correct decibel levels.

I could go on and on about the benefits of music therapy in this precious early stage of life, but we’d be here indefinitely, so I’ll leave it there. I hope this has been a helpful resource and I hope that you‘ll come back for the next post in this series, which will look at music therapy and early development. If you have any questions, feel free to check out my references or leave me a comment below. Thanks for reading!



Jayne M. Standley,

Music therapy for the neonate,

Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews,

Volume 1, Issue 4,


Pages 211-216,

ISSN 1527-3369,

Nocker-Ribaupierre, M (2011). When life begins too early: music therapy in a newborn intensive care unit, Developments in music therapy practice: case study perspectives. Pages 138-192. Barcelona Publishers

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