If the idea of music therapy brings to mind ?60s-era folk singers warbling to bemused patients, you haven?t seen Deanna Han?son-Abromeit at work.
At Operation Break?through in Kansas City, the University of Kansas assistant professor sings a good morning song to Daren, a curious, if slightly cautious, infant.
The tune is a simple one, and the singer bubbles over with enthusiasm, but her musical interventions are more of a conversation than a performance.
Hanson-Abromeit is engaged with Daren?s every movement, playing to her one-person audience in a way that might put Al Green to shame.
She watches his eyes and head while making constant changes to the music?s volume and tempo, trying to engage the baby?s attention.
Before the end of the second verse, Daren breaks into a big smile.
Struggling for respect
When Hanson-Abromeit started studying music therapy in the early 1990s, she received a warning from her college adviser: Have a backup plan. At the time, music therapy was struggling for respect, and many therapists ended up working as music teachers.
But the field has changed dramatically in the past few years, and now the KU assistant professor is considered one of the leading researchers working to uncover how music can help even the smallest premature infants survive and thrive.
?When we?re born a full-term infant, we can see, but our vision is protected in a way that we don?t take on too much stimuli for our systems to organize,? Han?son-Abromeit said. ?And when a baby is born prematurely, those systems haven?t yet fully developed.?
She said premature infants are overwhelmed with information: noise, light, new people. A neonatal intensive care unit can be especially chaotic, and the babies? brains aren?t developed enough to handle it all. The stress puts their nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, which robs them of the energy and focus their brains and nervous systems need to help them grow.
But if music has charms to soothe a savage breast, it also can soothe a newborn?s nervous system.
?We?re really trying to help them at a very basic neurological level organize at staying calm,? Hanson-Abromeit said.
Pre-recorded music won?t do the trick. The educational value of Baby Einstein DVDs largely has been debunked. Helping infants? brains develop requires something more subtle: the kind of attentive interaction practiced by therapists like Hanson-Abromeit.
?We can change those characteristics of the music to be less complex,? she said. ?And then build that up gradually for more complexity as the baby?s neurological processes can handle that, or we help them start to develop those things.?
Formalizing the method
Hanson-Abromeit said the next step is to establish a formalized method for music interventions with premature infants.
Through her clinical work and other research, she?s codifying how a therapist should respond when an infant looks away, for example, or shows an increased heart rate.
?Having some parameters in how we use the music and how, if we use the music this way, we should expect to get this outcome,? she said. ?So, taking a little of the mystery out of what we?re doing and why we?re doing it.?
Though Hanson-Abromeit?s field has made great strides with the help of neuroscience, she believes there?s still a lot to learn from the basics of music therapy: working with the newborns themselves to make a musical connection.
And as music therapy continues to gain professional respect, Hanson-Abromeit hopes her work will help take music intervention beyond the exclusive realm of the professional therapist.
?As we learn more about how and why music works with premature infants,? she said, ?it?s going to be really important to help parents learn how to read those cues and adapt the music to help manage the symptoms that their babies are experiencing, whether it?s pain or agitation or discomfort, so they can also build really nice memories and experiences with their infant.?