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Music Therapy for babies in Waterford

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Music therapist Catherine Sweeney-Brown enjoys the tiniest of audiences for her performances as she serenades the Neonatal and Special Care Baby Unit at University Hospital Waterford (UHW).

Catherine was selected as the Artist in Residence for 2019 at Waterford Healing Arts Trust (WHAT) and will be based at the WHAT Centre for Arts and Health at UHW for six months, primarily working with the unit at the hospital. The Artist in Residence scheme is funded by the Arts Council.

“Many of the sounds that patients are exposed to within a hospital setting such as alarms, telephones, etc can be intrusive. To reduce potential stress, and also to promote bonding, I am aiming to develop a more positive and healing sound-world through live musical interaction with the babies and their parents, and by recording a library of music that can be accessed by families and staff both on the wards and after discharge,” explained Catherine.

Parents have already been full in their praise of the initiative, with one mum whose baby received several music therapy sessions during his two week stay in hospital saying, “It’s wonderful – it calms the baby and it calms the mother. I don’t think music therapy should be optional, it should be compulsory! When there’s music on the ward the staff are more relaxed, it’s like everyone can breathe.”

Claire Meaney, Acting Arts Director of WHAT, said they were delighted to welcome Catherine to the team.

“Catherine’s work is beautiful, creative and supportive and she is already making great progress and creating meaningful and memorable experiences for parents and their babies, and the wonderful staff in the Neonatal and Special Care Baby Unit. The WHAT Artist in Residence programme is a means of engaging patients in contemporary arts practice and an opportunity for artists to develop their professional practice within an acute hospital context. Catherine’s work shows that creative engagement and these special experiences can occur at any age, even the very young.”

Infants born pre-term often arrive in a dramatic manner, through emergency interventions that involve a lot of visual, tactile and auditory stimulus. They are then cared for in noisy incubators, often on busy wards full of unpredictable sounds and these babies expend a lot of valuable energy trying to process these various sounds. Their whole bodies regularly enter startle responses which increase their heart-rate, destabilise their respiratory pattern and trigger involuntary movements.

When a music therapist works with a baby in the neonatal setting they choose appropriate music - matching the baby’s heartbeat and breath - and they alter their intervention in real time according to the baby’s response. Generally the music offered is low in pitch with a regular, predictable rhythm, which helps to reduce the baby’s heart-rate and lead to a slower and deeper respiratory pattern. If a baby is struggling to feed by breast or bottle, providing gentle rhythmic music that follows the pattern of their sucking reflex can help to establish and sustain their ability to feed for longer.

For parents, music therapy can provide a gentle space in an otherwise clinical environment where they can interact with their baby in a nurturing way. Opportunities for bonding are more limited due to babies being ventilated or in incubators, and pre-term babies are unable to respond to their parents in the same way as those born full-term. Music therapy can facilitate parent’s formation of positive attachments to their babies through singing to them, or just experiencing live music with them and tuning into their responses.

All babies in neonatal/special care have to undergo medical procedures such as having bloods taken, IV lines inserted etc. These experiences can be frightening and painful, especially when they are repeated frequently. They can have an impact on the babies’ emotional and cognitive development, reducing their resilience and affecting their ability to form positive attachments. In these situations the music therapist can play live music that connects with the baby’s crying, distracting and soothing them, and allowing them to integrate their pain experience in a less traumatic way. Having live music playing during procedures has the added advantage of relaxing the medical staff, which also has a positive impact on the baby.

The focus of the WHAT Artist in Residence programme is the artist’s engagement with patients at UHW in participatory and/ or collaborative arts experiences. For her residency, Catherine is focusing on developing a positive soundscape for the very young patients in the Neonatal and Special Care Baby Unit.

Music therapy is a very new addition to neonatal care in Ireland and involves the clinical application of the elements of music to effect change. There have been several large-scale research studies around the world proving that music therapy intervention in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) and Special Care Baby Units (SCBUs) leads to improved physical and cognitive outcomes for babies, and can reduce hospital stays by up to two weeks.

The therapy can have a profound effect on the physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing of babies in neonatal care. As more therapists begin to work in this field, the potential benefits are being seen by staff and parents alike.

For more information, contact Waterford Healing Arts on or 051 842 664.