Music Therapy and Your Baby

By Michelle Montgomery Muth, MT-BC April 25, 2014
A large part of my role as a board-certified music therapist is educating the public about what music therapy actually IS. During presentations, I always ask: “Who’s heard of music therapy?” Most everyone raises their hands. Then, my follow up question is: “How many of you know what music therapy is?” I usually get blank looks and a few people raise their hands, or some just say, “no.”

What Is Music Therapy?
I consider this a great opportunity and responsibility for me to effectively describe the profession of music therapy. Before I discuss the benefits of music therapy and your baby, let’s learn about music therapy in general.

To best understand music therapy, I want you to take a moment and think about when you might listen to music and how it makes you feel.
  • Maybe you have music on in the background to help you focus.
  • You listen while you are in the car after a rough day to give your spirits a lift and help you transition to your home life.
  • Music helps you relax before drifting off to sleep.
  • You put ear buds in for a run with just the right music to keep the pace going to accomplish your exercise goals.
  • Sometimes if you’re feeling angry or down, a piece of music matching those moods is just what you need to help you release the tension.
Now, imagine using that power of music intentionally, in a therapeutic relationship, to:
  • Help a young child with autism sing his first words.
  • Watch a premature infant learn to suck, allowing them to eat, which is so vital and often difficult for a preemie.
  • Stabilize the gait of someone with Parkinson’s disease.
  • Hear a dementia sufferer sing a song when they haven’t spoken for months.
This is what music therapists do. We are health care professionals who use music, in a therapeutic relationship, to help achieve non-musical goals. Our training is extensive with the minimum requirement of a four-year degree in music therapy, 1,200 hours of clinical training, including a supervised internship (typically six months full-time after coursework), and then sitting for the national board certification exam. Once passed, continuing education courses are required to renew credentials every five years. Many music therapists further their education with master's degrees and doctoral work or advanced certifications in specialized areas or techniques, including the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) medical music therapy.

Music Therapy for Infants
What does this mean to you as a budding new parent-to-be or a new parent? What does music therapy have to do with you and your child? In the February issue of Macaroni Kid Stork. I wrote about the importance of using music and your voice to bond with your child both within and outside the womb. This article is specifically about music therapy with infants.

Did you know that:
  • Music therapy and relaxation prior to breastfeeding can have a positive effect on the experience for both mother and child.
  • Live music therapy has positive effects on vital signs, feeding and sleep in premature infants.
  • Premature infants with low birthweights receiving music therapy often gain more weight per day than premature infants without MT.
  • Through the use of music therapy in the NICU, combined with the pacifier-activated-lullaby system (PAL) that stimulates non-nutritive sucking (NNS), babies learn how to “practice” sucking, swallowing and breathing—all critical behavior for both survival and neurological development.
Each of these instances is related to music therapy and not simply providing recorded music for your baby. The hospital environment is a challenging one for any individual, including your baby. If born prematurely, they may be surrounded by various machines, nurses and doctors doing their work as gently as possible, while you are likely filled with anxiety and concern for your child and possibly trying to recover yourself. The music therapist is typically part of the interdisciplinary team, understanding procedures and protocols as well as the treatment plan for your little one.

How and Why Infants React to Music
When working with your baby, the music therapist is taking into account your baby’s vital signs and reactions to different sounds, as well as your interaction. A music therapist is trained to listen and adapt/change music according to information received from clients. For example, a music therapist might sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to use as a calming effect on the baby. If the baby shows agitation when the music begins, the music therapist will adapt. One aspect the music therapist will take into account is the baby’s heart rate, and can slow or speed up the music’s pulse to match the baby’s pulse, thereby meeting the baby where they are at. From there, the music therapist might begin to slow the tune to help the baby relax. As the baby relaxes, the heart rate decreases and oxygen saturation increases — all very important factors in this tiny life.

In the above example, when the baby gave the initial negative reaction to the music, someone without music therapy training and using recorded music might have simply decided that the baby “doesn’t like that song” and put on another, and another, and another, not realizing that the reaction is not to the song but could be to any music element such as tempo (speed), dynamics (loud/soft), rhythm, and style. A board-certified music therapist understands the complexity of music elements and how they affect the body. Additionally, the music therapist will work with and partner with the parents to help them use music to bond with their child and to use it in a therapeutic manner.

There is quite a bit of research available on the use of music therapy in pediatrics. In April 2013, the New York Times published Live Music’s Charms, Soothing Premature Hearts based on a study in “Pediatrics: The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.” The study concluded that live music, played or sung, helped to slow infants’ heartbeats, calm their breathing, improve sucking behaviors important for feeding, aid sleep and promote states of quiet alertness. We all do better in life in a more relaxed state and nowhere is it more apparent than in the very instinct-based life of a newborn.

If you are interested in learning more about music therapy in general or specifically with infants, drop me a line.

Michelle Montgomery Muth is a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC) and music educator with advanced certification in Neurologic Music Therapy. Michelle is passionate about music and music therapy. She works with her clients focusing on the whole person and the ability of music to affect change and promote wellness in their lives. She is owner of M3 Music Therapy ( and provider of Sprouting Melodies®, an early childhood music and movement program.