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A day in the life of a Music Therapist in a Special Care Baby Unit.

Music therapy in the special care baby unit involves the use of music as a stimulant by a trained music therapist to elicit cognitive, physical, and emotional change. The therapist uses music to facilitate appropriate goals including increased rest and regulation, reduce infant irritability, promote parent-infant bonding and promote the neurodevelopment of infants currently admitted on the ward. Music therapy on the special care baby unit is being utilised to pacify and reduce infant stress in order to positively affect oxygen saturation levels, heart rate and respiration rate. 

Apart from the physiological observations of the infant, music therapy is being utilised to promote parent bonding, parent involvement, to promote latching and relaxation during feeding and to help alleviate parent stress and anxiety. While on the ward, the therapist can be involved with engaging in one or all of these outcomes on any particular day. 

Common events for infants on the special care baby unit are bradycardia - heart rate lower than 80-100bpm and tachycardia - heart rate above 160bpm, both of which interfere with the baby's ability to rest and regulate. Infants on the special care baby unit are monitored by nurses constantly, however, when not being fed, given daily care or with a parent the baby is resting in a cot or incubator on its own. This gives the therapist a perfect opportunity to engage with the baby in order to help stabilise and manage their heart rate during the session period and period of time thereafter. It also helps to reduce infant irritability and to promote a soothing and relaxing atmosphere to help the baby rest, regulate and sleep. 

Admission to the special care baby unit can be a worrisome and stressful time for parents. Common stressors for parents of preterm infants on the special care baby unit include infant appearance, hospital environment, medical equipment and altered parent role. At time it is necessary that the baby stays in a sealed incubator for long periods of time meaning the parent can't hold or interact physically with their infant making bonding difficult. Oftentimes the therapist is able to offer support in form of an incubator side music therapy session with parent(s). Parents are encouraged to sing and play instruments to their baby, to help aid relaxation and regulation. This also helps to promote parent attachment and empowerment. The session creates a space that is just for the parent and their baby and not focused on medical daily care. These positive family interactions can help to decrease parents' feelings of isolation, anxiety and elevate their mood. 

On several occasions parents have opted for music therapy sessions to happen whilst either breastfeeding or bottle-feeding their baby due to increased levels of relaxation during session time. Feeding can be a time of concern for parents of pre-term infants as their baby needs to gain a certain amount of weight and feed consistently ahead of their discharge. Sessions also regularly take place during skin to skin interactions to assist in creating a nurturing environment.

The music therapy sessions have been used to relax both parent and baby by providing a relaxing environment and space for both to bond during this time and providing a positive experience during a sometimes-stressful time. The role of the therapist is interchangeable on a day-by-day basis depending on the needs of the baby or parents present on the ward and has been a wonderful experience so far. The special care baby unit is an extraordinary ward offering exceptional support to all infants and parents who are in their care.


Written by Molly Carr, Lead Music Therapist at Connect Music Therapy

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