A mother's voice helps preemie thrive


by Jean Enersen

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Posted on May 22, 2012 at 9:29 AM

Updated Tuesday, May 22 at 9:28 AM

Born at just 25 weeks, Benson Borgen weighed less than a pound and a half. His mother described his first days as being on the cusp of survival.

Benson was too fragile to hold. So Breanna Borgen did the only thing she could.

"I would pray with him a lot. I would tell him how much his mommy and daddy loved him and tell him about his bright future," said Borgen.

A neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU can be a preemie's home for months. Babies are surrounded by advanced technology and skilled staff coordinating care to ensure their survival. Monitors are connected to alarms that alert nurses when a baby literally forgets to breathe.
"One of the parts of the brain that's immature is the respiratory center, which is the part of our brain that reminds us to breath 24/7 every day of your life," explained  Seattle Children's Neonatologist Dr. Isabella Knox.  Dr. Knox is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington.

Dr. Knox said when apnea occurs, breathing stops. The baby's heart rate slows.

"It's a scary event. But we have our monitors set so the nurses get there in time to make sure there's no harm done."
But his mother's voice, that Benson first heard in the womb, also helped him regulate his breathing and heart beat in the NICU.

"It is a familiar voice. It's not just any woman's voice. But it's their mother's voice," said Dr. Knox.

In a fascinating new study Published in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital played audio recordings to extremely premature infants. When a mom couldn't be at the bedside the baby heard her voice and heartbeat. Those preemies had fewer pauses in breathing, and fewer events of slowed heart beats.

Dr. Knox explained a mother's voice and heart beat give a baby a sense that he or she is part of the world, and can interact with it. 
"What I go back to is, what is this baby's nervous system expecting at this time of development? So for a preemie baby it's expecting to be hearing the mother's heartbeat, being able to kick, and possibly receive a response of some sort," said Dr. Knox.

She said staff at Seattle Children's encourages families in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The space is designed to keep noise low, with many individual rooms where parents can stay close to their babies. 

Benson is home now, after six months in the NICU. During that time his family, grandmother, father, and his mom had been with him for about 12 hours nearly every day.

"That is amazing to think about how much time I spent with him, and how much he heard my voice, that he never did have issues of apnea or dipping of his heart rate, so, I have to be a believer, yes," said Breanna Borgan.