Mozart's music can soothe pain in newborns, study finds

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For newborn babies in pain, a little night music might be just what the doctor ordered.

A newly released study from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia has found that listening to Mozart can reduce the signs of pain in infants.

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Scientists conducted their research with the help of 100 two-day-old babies and their parents at a community hospital in New York’s Bronx neighbourhood. The study appeared in the journal Nature.

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The infants were having a standard blood test, which is done by pricking the heel. They all received a small dose of sugar just before the test. But half of them also listened to an instrumental lullaby by the famed 18th-century composer, which played for 20 minutes before the test, and another five afterward. The other half got silence.

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The researchers would score the babies’ apparent pain on the Neonatal Infant Pain Scale (NIPS) using facial expressions, crying, breathing patterns, movement and alertness as indicators. The person doing the scoring would also wear noise-cancelling headphones, so they wouldn’t know whether the music was playing or not.

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On the seven-point scale, the Mozart listeners scored an average of just under five, which dropped below three in the first minute. Babies who got the heel prick in silence scored almost seven, and took several minutes to get back below three.

“Music intervention,” the authors of the study concluded, “is an easy, reproducible, and inexpensive tool for pain relief from minor procedures in healthy, term newborns.” An earlier study had found similar results in premature babies, but this was the first to assess full-term infants. The researchers also studied predominantly non-white babies, unlike some earlier studies.

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Numerous other researchers have looked at the painkilling effects of music in adults, with theories that listening to music stimulates an emotional response, engages our attention and activates sensory pathways that compete with those for pain. Still, the exact mechanism is not well understood.

As for the babies, the researchers noted that they did not compare Mozart with other types of music, which could be a topic for future studies. Will Mendelssohn or Motörhead provide the same salutary relief? Or is this merely a case of Amadeus ex machina?

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