Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

The Booys sing to their daughter, Annalyn, while she taps her feet on the keys of her toy which lights up and plays music to her touch, at B.C. Women's Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., on May 28, 2019.

Jackie Dives for The Globe and M/The Globe and Mail

Emily and Reg Booy sing softly to their baby, Annalyn, who was born nearly three months before her expected due date, in the neonatal intensive care unit of a Vancouver hospital.

Their rendition of You Are My Sunshine is altered slightly, according to a music therapist’s direction. They swap out the word “never” to sing, “You’ll always know, dear, how much I love you.”

And they replace “Please don’t take my sunshine away,” with a new line: “And I love you more every day.”

Story continues below advertisement

“It just makes it a little more hopeful,” Ms. Booy explains.

The Booys are part of a pilot project at B.C. Women’s Hospital and Health Centre, one of several Canadian hospitals providing music therapy for babies with complex medical needs. The program personalizes songs – from folk tunes to Metallica hits – and encourages parents to sing them to their infants as lullabies. Research suggests music helps parents bond with babies who have had a harrowing start to life, and may benefit the babies’ health and brain development. Similar programs, inspired by one in the United States, are being offered to the youngest of hospital patients in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and London, Ont.

“A lot of these babies have already gone through this unpleasant experience, and their brain development is not optimized,” says Sandesh Shivananda, medical director of the hospital’s neonatal program. “We have to use whatever is available to normalize their life, and normalize their development.”

In Vancouver, the six-month pilot project, launched in April, is part of the hospital’s efforts to provide what Dr. Shivananda calls “developmentally supportive care,” which counters the painful procedures, disruptive lights and sounds and other noxious stimuli to which babies in intensive care are often exposed.

For Annalyn, this includes visits each week from a music therapist who sings and sometimes plays guitar while Mr. and Ms. Booy do physiotherapy exercises with her or try to soothe her after a medical procedure.

The therapist, Carol Wiedemann, often performs customized versions of music the couple would listen to at home, such as songs by the Beatles (Hey Jude becomes Hey Annalyn), and encourages the parents to join in. The music is modified according to how much stimulation the baby can handle. For example, the therapist may forego the guitar and simply sing or hum, or slow the song down.

The Booys say the sound makes everyone in the hospital room feel calmer, and routine tasks such as physiotherapy exercises feel more playful and less clinical.

Story continues below advertisement

Chantelle and Matthew Arnold sit with their son Owen in his room at B.C. Women's Hospital while Mr. Arnold sings him a song.

Jackie Dives for The Globe and M/The Globe and Mail

Dr. Shivananda says the American Academy of Pediatrics has cited a 2013 study as evidence for using music therapy in neonatal intensive-care units (NICUs). That study found live music, especially “songs of kin” – lullabies selected and performed by parents – improved premature infants’ vital signs and feeding. It boosted their oxygen saturation levels, reduced their heart rates and increased their calorie intake. It also reduced parents’ stress and anxiety.

But why would lullabies produce such physiological responses?

The human body is a “symphony of sounds” controlled by the brain, explains Joanne Loewy, one of the authors of that 2013 study and director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York.

“The brain hears and feels the vibration and rhythm of music … and it gives a cue, a neurologic cue, to the breathing rate and to the experience of heart rate,” she says.

In a traditional NICU, babies are exposed to unpredictable sounds, from the comings and goings of staff to beeping machines, adds Toronto-based music therapist Cheryl-Lee Campbell, who has worked with infants in intensive care. She says music helps babies’ brains find order.

“If they have a regulated rhythm, and a regulated beat, a regulated melody, it gives them something to latch onto that isn’t that chaos,” Ms. Campbell says.

Story continues below advertisement

However, she cautions, babies can become overstimulated very easily, which may lead to distress, crying and disrupted sleep. Thus, it is necessary to recognize how much music, if any, a baby can tolerate. Ms. Campbell says she may start with gentle humming, and if the baby turns toward her, she would continue and perhaps add more notes. But signs to stop include an increase or a drop in the baby’s heart rate, or turning away.

Dr. Loewy developed the “song of kin” intervention, now used in hospitals around the world, during decades of practising music therapy and studying how babies respond to their parents’ singing. When parents chose and sing songs that are meaningful to them and sung in their own language, they communicate their values, emotions and culture through the music, she explains.

In Toronto, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital is looking to expand its own pilot program, introduced in 2018, which involves music therapy for infants and their families. During weekly sessions, parents and caregivers are encouraged to convert a song of their choice into a soothing lullaby, altering the tempo, softening the sounds and personalizing the lyrics. They are then encouraged to sing and record it, often incorporating sounds of their baby and the baby’s siblings.

Back at B.C. Women’s Hospital, new father Matthew Arnold has composed his own song for son Owen, who was born with a heart condition at 29 weeks gestation. It includes the lines: “Owen, Owen, he’s sleepin’ and a-growin’ …/Nurse, Nurse, you’re always first /RT [respiratory therapist], RT, oxygen to my arteries...”

Along with the medical care Owen receives, Mr. Arnold credits these kinds of parental interactions for his baby’s development and growth. “Knowing that we’re here and that he’s loved every day gives him some will to keep going,” he says.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies