Mothers who give birth to premature babies have a lot to worry about. Besides respiratory problems, intellectual disabilities, and visual problems, the babies are also at risk of feeding and digestive problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A new intervention, however, may be able to quicken the speed at which these babies learn to feed properly, thereby shortening their hospital stay. It involves a pacifier that plays recorded versions of lullabies sung by the babies’ mothers.  

Whenever a premature baby is born, they are given a pacifier, among other things, to assist with therapy — many of them can’t feed correctly because of a lack of sucking power. In cases like these, they stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) until they develop the ability to feed on their own. Studies are beginning to show that a parent’s presence in the NICU during the time that their child is there could boost the child’s development, including their breathing, language, and heart rates.

For the babies involved in this study, sucking on a pacifier that played recorded lullabies sung by their mothers — the recording stopped playing when they stopped sucking — led to a faster learning of the proper way to feed. “A mother’s voice is a powerful auditory cue,” said study author Dr. Nathalie Maitre, a professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, in a statement. “Babies know and love their mother’s voice. It has proven to be the perfect incentive to help motivate these babies.”

Maitre and her colleagues looked at 94 premature babies, all of whom were born between 34 and 36 weeks of gestation (about 40 weeks is full term), and were healthy except for being fed through a feeding tube. About half of the babies got the prerecorded pacifiers, which played either “Hush Little Baby” or “Snuggle Puppy,” for about 15 minutes each day. Whenever the babies sucked on the pacifiers, they heard their mothers singing.

Although the study only lasted about five days, the results were obvious. Babies who used the pacifiers were off the feeding tubes an average of a week earlier than those who had regular pacifiers. They also consumed more, drinking about two milliliters of fortified breast milk, compared to about one milliliter in the comparison group, Reuters reported.

“Premature infants thrive in the home with earlier discharge, parents are relieved to have their babies home from the hospital as soon as possible, and medical costs are greatly reduced,” Jayne M. Standley, the inventor of the musical pacifier, called the PAL, told Reuters. “This study has implications to change NICU treatment for feeding problems of premature infants.”

Source: Chorna O, Slaughter J, Maitre N, et al. A Pacifier-Activated Music Player With Mother’s Voice Improves Oral Feeding in Preterm Infants. Pediatrics. 2014.