Lullaby recordings help NICU babies learn pacifier skills quicker, study finds

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Some say music has a special ability to heal, and now researchers are finding that to be true for some of the tiniest patients.

Having to go home while their triplets stayed in the NICU was a helpless feeling for Jana Gallus and Gregor Martynus. Then they learned of a new way to help their babies even when they couldn't be at the hospital. 

Researchers at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital are studying a device called a pacifier-activated lullaby, or PAL. It plays a lullaby written and sung by the baby's parents when they successfully suck on the pacifier. 

"They love it, especially when they hear their parents' voices, they want to keep performing," says Jenna Bollard with UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital. 

This is critically important for preemies born before 34 weeks, who often struggle to feed because they haven't developed the reflex to suck, breathe and swallow. 

"Sometimes that's that final thing that needs to happen before an infant is discharged from the hospital, is their ability to feed orally with strength and endurance," says Bollard.

Seventy percent of preemies improved their proficiency using the pacifier when the PAL device was used, a skill that's important for feeding. The hope is to shorten hospital stays, while also empowering parents and easing their own emotional distress while their babies are in intensive care. 

"There's a role for you to play that no one else can fill that void, and it's critical and it's powerful," says UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital RN Shelly Frisco.

"It helped us as parents, I think, just as much," says Martynus.

With the help of the PAL device, all three of the triplets fed better and grew stronger - and were able to go home together at 52 days old. Now, they are healthy babies growing by the day. 

Their parents say music continues to influence their development, just as it has since their first days in the world. 

"They're all healthy and there's really nothing more we could wish for," says Gallus. 

With positive results for both babies and parents, experts are hoping that more hospitals will adopt the technology to help shorten stays in the NICU, reducing healthcare costs and helping families take their babies home as soon as possible.