Many years ago I conceived the idea of writing a book about the health-critical importance of beauty. It always struck me as obvious that if we surrounded ourselves with beautiful things—furniture, paintings, architecture, flowers, fabrics, sweet music and such like—then our lives would automatically be enhanced and many health benefits would accrue.
I am still 100% sure that is true and I arrange my life with as much positive esthetics as possible. But I never wrote the book (or should I say I haven’t written it YET!)
Thinking of music in particular, studies come around on a regular basis proving its powerful worth in the field of healing. Perhaps one of the greatest was among the first: Dorothy Retallack’s groundbreaking experiments, as reported in her 1973 book The Sound of Music and Plants.
As part of her undergraduate studies at the Colorado Women’s College in Denver, she experimented with the length of time that music was played and also attempted to discover the style of music plants like most.
Apparently soothing classical music, and even Louis Armstrong’s jazz, suited the plants very well. But hard rock, heavy metal, and even harsh, atonal modern classical music, caused them to become dehydrated and die quickly.
Retallack reported tendril plants wrapping themselves lovingly around the loudspeakers when J S Bach was played, a reaction I sometimes share myself!
Nowadays, of course, we have it on the other feed: plants play soothing music to us, if rigged up to electronic sensors and a midi device that allows them to do that. Maybe you have heard of the singing plants of Damanhur, in northern Italy? Viv and I went to visit Damanhur in 2015:
What got me going on this theme was reading an article about how music helps Mums of preemies calm down and feel reassured.
It’s pretty scary, giving birth to a premature baby. The infant’s survival is by no means guaranteed. Mothers of preterm infants often experience stress in the hospital, and their worry for the baby’s survival may be considerable. This heightens their risk of later anxiety and depression, particularly among mothers of infants whose birth weight is very low or who are born very early. Maternal stress and depressive symptoms can also pose a risk to the infant’s further development.
Well apparently, if Mum is played beautiful soothing music (not the hysteric pop kind that you get pregnant to!) she calms down. Nice.
This study was done at Helsinki University, in beautiful Finland. They found that singing to preterm infants during kangaroo care reduces maternal anxiety.
Kangaroo care itself was a big breakthrough in the treatment of prem babies. It cuts through the usual unpleasant and stupidly-wrong “science” that says prem babies must not be touched in any way, even by the mother… God forbid!
But it turns out to be baloney, like most so-called science. Just ignorant dogma, really, that nobody questioned for decades.
Kangaroo care was developed in the late 1970s, in Colombia, in response to the exceptionally high death rate in preterm babies —approximately 70% at that time. So the strict avoidance code wasn’t really working anyway. The babies were dying of infections, respiratory problems and simply due to a lack of attention.
But then researchers Edgar Rey Sanabria and Héctor Martínez-Gómez developed the Kangaroo Mother Program in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1979, as an alternative to conventional incubator treatment for low birth weight infants. They found that babies who were held close to their mothers’ bodies for large portions of the day not only survived, but thrived.
It’s too shocking to be believed… actually touching and petting the baby had positive benefits? But it’s not science, surely? (don’t write me, I’m being ironic again)
The kangaroo reference is, of course, to marsupials such as kangaroos putting their offspring in their pouch! (pouches are the definition of marsupials)
Today kangaroo care isn’t only for premature babies — it can also be very good for full-term babies and their parents. Now, skin-to-skin contact is encouraged for all babies.
Away with your tripe, Benjamin Spock!
The new Finnish study indicates that adding singing to kangaroo care boosts the wellbeing of the mothers of preterm infants, also making it easier for them to establish an emotional connection with their baby.
In kangaroo care, the preterm infant is placed on the parent’s chest to establish skin-to-skin contact. Due to its developmentally supporting outcomes, the method has consolidated its position as part of the standard care for preterm infants in Finland, and it is often initiated already during intensive care immediately after the infant’s physical condition makes kangaroo care possible.
The ‘Singing Kangaroo’ study conducted at the University of Helsinki observed 24 mothers who sang or hummed over the course of kangaroo care to their preterm infants during a period corresponding with weeks 33 to 40 of pregnancy. A music therapist guided the parents in the intervention group to sing in a manner appropriate for the age of the preterm infant and also provided them with singing material.
In the control group, 12 mothers carried out kangaroo care as standard practice up to week 40 without any specific encouragement to sing (but it wasn’t forbidden). Maternal anxiety was measured by questionnaire at the beginning and end of the intervention. The mothers in both groups kept a journal where they recorded the duration of their daily interventions, while the control group mothers also recorded information on the auditory environment associated with kangaroo care.
“Prior research has shown that the mother’s voice and singing have positive effects on the development of preterm infants, among them the potential to stabilize their physiological state. In addition, several music therapy studies have demonstrated that music therapy and singing by mothers in conjunction with kangaroo care already in intensive care can positively affect the mothers in particular by reducing their anxiety,” says doctoral student Kaisamari Kostilainen from the University of Helsinki.
In other words, singing to baby relaxes both mother and child. Interestingly, all mothers continued singing after the study.
A total of 18 mothers (85%) reported that singing improved their mood, and 14 mothers (67%) felt singing helped them cope in a difficult situation. Sixteen respondents (76%) said that singing improved their wellbeing in general.
total of 19 mothers (90%) reported that their baby reacted to their singing in kangaroo care by relaxing. Seventeen mothers (80%) said their babies fell asleep while listening to the singing.
Nearly all mothers (95%) felt singing promoted interaction with their infants and made it easier to establish an emotional connection. Well then, it should become part of standard post-natal care, not just an intervention when there are problems.
It wasn’t all mothers either! 16 mothers (76%) reported that the other parent sang to their preterm baby as well. In this study “other parent” meant male partner, the father.
All of the mothers in the singing group reported they had continued singing at home after the study, with singing established as an element of daily family routines.
That’s what I call a result.
We should sing to each other more, never mind just babies and parents.
Record me a lullaby and send it to me!
To your good health,
Prof. Keith Scott-Mumby
Kaisamari Kostilainen, Kaija Mikkola, Jaakko Erkkilä, Minna Huotilainen. Effects of maternal singing during kangaroo care on maternal anxiety, wellbeing, and mother-infant relationship after preterm birth: a mixed methods study. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 2020; 1 DOI: 10.1080/08098131.2020.1837210