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Mothers have long known that singing or speaking to baby has a calming effect. It can also be a powerful tool helping premature babies eat better and maybe leave the hospital sooner, according to a new study published today in Pediatrics.

Eating is crucially important for infants, and premature infants in particular.

“A baby who can’t eat can’t leave the hospital,” explains study author Dr. Nathalie Maitre, assistant professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt.

Previous research has shown that hearing a parent’s voice is beneficial to babies; it helps them regulate everything from their heartbeat to their breathing. So researchers wanted to see if they could harness the calming effect of a mother’s voice to help preemies improve their feeding skills.

To test this theory, 46 babies from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital were given a specially designed pacifier equipped with special sensors. When they sucked correctly on the device, they were rewarded by hearing a recording of their mother’s voice singing a lullaby: either “Hush Little Baby” or “Snuggle Puppy,” carefully chosen by experts because they were calming and simple enough for a premature baby’s developing brain.The babies practiced with the pacifiers for 15 minutes, five times a day for five days.

Researchers found that babies who used the pacifier were able to have their feeding tubes removed about a week earlier than babies who didn’t use the pacifier. They also developed a stronger sucking ability, ate more frequently, and did not show signs of stress during their pacifier sessions.

Not only did the babies fare better in terms of eating, it gave parents an opportunity to bond with their babies and take an active role in their care.

“It’s a way to empower parents to help their children,” explained Maitre.