Yes, you can and should sing to your baby while he or she is in the NICU!
Why? Because your baby loves it, is calmed by it, and only you have the voice that your baby has been hearing throughout her entire life.
Singing to your baby is a natural and normal thing that parents across all cultures do to nurture & bond with their babies. When everything else about the NICU is so unnatural and difficult, singing is a free, easy & natural way to stay connected with your baby. So it's just a normal parent thing to do, and you can do it even with NICU babies.
In fact, I'd argue that it's almost more important and meaningful for babies in the NICU, because these babies are distanced from their mother and partner, they don't get as much exposure to her voice, so having a special connection through sound & song is really wonderful for NICU babies.
After 20 years of NICU nursing, I realize that most parents feel self-conscious about singing to their baby while under the watchful eyes (and ears) of everyone in the NICU. It’s already hard enough for parents to feel confident and bold to sing to their babies at home, but then to have nurses and doctors and other parents lingering around, hearing how off-key and silly you are… come on, that’s intimidating, right?But there are actually some really good reasons for you to sing to your baby. Let’s take a look. Research shows these important findings:
- Auditory organs are fully developed around 20 weeks gestation. So by the time even the tiniest preemies are born, they’ve been hearing their parents voices.
- Sing-song voices that parents use with their babies is innate - people across all cultures use singing and a “baby-talk” voice quality to interact with infants because infants respond so well to it.
- Infants who hear singing may optimize their mood & arousal level.
- Repetitive prenatal reading of one story by one parent every day for weeks results in the newborn’s recognition of and preference for that story.
- Premature babies are calmed by calming music.
So, when you've got the huge hurdle between you & your baby that the NICU creates, don't just despair - sing!
How to start Singing to your Baby in the NICU
I recommend that NICU parents choose 2-3 songs that they sing every time they're with their baby. It becomes a comfort, a calming signal of love and nurturing. A predictable, soothing routine. You might sing to your baby when:
- You first arrive, as a ritual way to say hello
- When you open the portholes to let your little one know you're there
- When you're holding
- When you're sitting by the bedside for hours not being able to hold
- When you're changing diapers and checking temperature, as a calming technique
Songs you sing during your NICU stay will then be comforting and recognizable moments that your baby will enjoy, and will come to prefer over other sounds and voices. This helps during your NICU stay, and it also helps as you transition to leaving the NICU because it will be a ritual that carries over from NICU to home. Some of my favorite NICU songs are:
- You are my sunshine
- Eidelweiss (I admit, I’m a Sound of Music fan)
- Itsy bitsy spider
- Rockaby baby
- Hush little baby
- Somewhere over the rainbow
- When you wish upon a star
- What a wonderful world
Don't Have a good singing voice?
It doesn't matter! Your baby will still prefer your song to the voices of others. So perhaps sing quietly, but don't let being off-key stop you from giving your baby this gift. If you REALLY have a terrible voice and can't possibly consider singing, hum a tune instead.
Don'T Hear other parents singing?
They're probably as intimidated as you are, and they may not even know of the benefits. So be the trend setter - sing your beautiful serenades for your baby, and let some happiness flow!
STILL DON'T THINK YOU CAN SING IN THE NICU?
OK, so I haven’t convinced you to sing lullabies to your baby in the NICU?
Still feeling self-conscious about humming a tune in front of all these other people?
You’re not alone, but I do wish you’d give it a try!
If there’s just no way you’re singing in the NICU, then I suggest this alternative:
Find some rhyming poems to read or recite to your little one. It’s nearly as good, because they, too, can become recognizable patterns of your comforting voice for your baby.
- Shel Silverstein "Where the Sidewalk Ends"
- "Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes"
- or read any of these 75 best read-aloud books for NICU babies
Check out this interesting Research on singing to babies
Here's a video related to how babies respond to songs they've become familiar with. It's focused on full term babies, not preemies or NICU babies, but still you get an idea how a baby can grow to love a song they've heard over and over.
I know most of us don't have voices as beautiful as this, but still... enjoy this sweet little preemie being serenaded with a Christmas carol:
The effects of mother–infant singing on emotional closeness, affect, anxiety, and stress hormones - Sage Journals
Speech vs. singing: infants choose happier sounds - Frontiers in Psychology
Trish Ringley is the founder and CEO of Every Tiny Thing. She has been a NICU nurse since 1997, and she's been crating the products and accessories that NICU parents love since 2014. When she's not at work caring for NICU families, she's raising her two teenage kids, gardening, and raising service dog puppies for Canine Companions for Independence.