NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Gentle melodies strummed on a 6-foot tall harp lilt into nurseries where critically ill newborns cling to life at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
''It just puts them in a more restful state,'' says student musician Betty-Ashton Andrews, who is experimenting with using music to help the infants. ''It makes it easier for them to grow and heal.''
There's only budding scientific proof that such therapy helps newborns, but that doesn't dissuade Andrews, 19, from conducting her once-weekly concerts at the hospital's newborn intensive care unit.
Astride the gilded harp on the NICU's tile floor, Andrews coaxes lullabies, Disney tunes and classical music from its 52 strings, including requests that range from ''Amazing Grace'' to Lynard Skynard's ''Freebird.''
Her audience, usually 150 babies, is tucked into incubators and surrounded by nests of tubes and wires connected to respirators, heart monitors and intravenous fluids. Nurses and parents say they note subtle changes in the babies when Andrews plays and most welcome any balm for a trying time.
Staff members say the music provides an antidote to the stress that comes with caring for, and sometimes losing, babies who are premature or fighting diseases.
For the babies, it muffles the frightening sounds of machines and unusual voices, and soothes them to sleep when their mothers can't.
NICU manager Diane Deslauriers said the babies' heart rates seem to go down and they seem to rely less on their respirators when they hear the harp music.
Christa Tuttle of Gallatin drove 50 miles round-trip each day to spend about 12 hours in the NICU with her daughter, Caitlin. Born three months early on Jan. 29, Caitlin relied on a respirator the first three days to help her breathe.
Tuttle cannot say if Caitlin's health improved because of the music, but she says she responded to it.
''Probably the one and only way you can tell is her alertness and her calmness,'' Tuttle said when Caitlin was still in the NICU. ''She's relaxed and able to look around and listen.''
Caitlin went home on March 19, and ''is doing great. She is gaining weight much faster than when she was in the hospital. They say the home environment is best and I see that to be true,'' her mother said recently.
Vanderbilt has not studied the effect of the music on the children, but Deslauriers said, ''If I'm carrying a baby and she calms down, I don't need a research study.''
Jayne Standley, professor of music therapy at Florida State University, has conducted several studies at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital's NICU and has found babies who listened to lullabies left the hospital earlier than those who didn't.
By hooking tape recorders to feeding tubes, researchers also found they could use lullabies to teach premature babies to nurse.
''If the baby gets 10 seconds of music and then it goes off, they learn to suck for at least 10 seconds to keep the music on,'' Standley said.
Standley said research was needed to determine whether harp music was comforting to premature babies. Even though it is apparently soothing stimulation, she said premature babies are highly sensitive and the sounds could be disturbing to them.
At Vanderbilt, most babies dozed peacefully while Andrews played. Some were doted on by nurses and nervous mothers. Few showed signs of the restlessness sometimes exhibited by newborns hospitalized for the first weeks of their lives.
Andrews said she has had only a good response since first playing the harp for hospitalized newborns at Carilion Health System in her hometown of Roanoke, Va. Andrews, who is pursuing a degree in harp performance and considering one in music therapy, said she chose to attend Vanderbilt in part so she could lend her music to its NICU.
''I love to play the harp,'' she said, and ''I get to use it in a way that other people will benefit from it.''
Ron Price, who teaches harp and music education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., said many doctors are amazed at how quickly patients respond to the music.
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