Inspire Me

How Music Therapy Helps Soothe Patients in the NICU

Sarra Erb, a music therapist with Banner Children's, has a job many people can only dream about. She gets paid to sing to babies in the hospital. 

Part of her role as a music therapist involves singing to sick and premature infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Erb is specially trained to use her melodic voice to soothe them, along with a calming touch to counterbalance the occasional poking and prodding necessary for life-saving or life-sustaining treatment. 

In the NICU, Erb quietly sings “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to Boston Cervantes, who weighed only 1 pound and 8 ounces at birth in October. An ever-present electronic monitor beeps and blips nearby, providing its own background music as it tracks Boston’s heartbeat and oxygen levels. 

Positive reinforcement through singing

“We’re helping them learn that not all touch is bad, by providing positive reinforcement through singing or humming while doing ‘light touch,’ so they won’t be fearful of sensory experiences as they grow,” said Erb.  

Erb makes the same gentle motions 10 times in the same area, such as on Boston’s head or cheek, so she’ll learn to know what’s coming next and develop trust. Erb sings each nursery rhyme five to 10 times in a row for the same reason. 

Studies have shown music therapy helps infants leave the NICU faster and require less medicine during treatment. It helps improve the way babies process information, increases developmental opportunities and promotes self-calming behavior. 

Boston’s mom, Alicia Cervantes of Mesa, AZ, said music therapy has made quite a difference in her daughter’s growth. “She is the happiest baby,” Cervantes said. “I want to thank God for the healing hands at Banner Desert.”

Erb can sing to infants as young as 28 weeks, though she doesn’t hold them or introduce light-touch techniques until about 32 weeks, since they’re still developing their senses during that time. 

Her role in the NICU becomes especially important when parents are unable to be at the infant’s bedside for a long period of time. 

Music therapy can help bring normalcy to the hospital environment for children, creating meaningful activities to engage kids and help them better communicate throughout treatment. Each session is catered to the specific needs of each child. 

To learn more about music therapy and how it can improve the quality of life for patients and their families, visit 

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