Music Therapy: Sounds of Love in Early Childhood

Music Therapy: Sounds of Love in Early Childhood

Believe it or not, your baby thinks your voice sounds better than Beyoncé, Whitney, Elton or Elvis. And, singing to your baby can actually help development.

Growing evidence shows that babies whose parents sing, read, or play with them to music have a greater chance of reaching developmental milestones on time. Even premature babies or infants born with conditions that cause developmental delays show improvement after engaging in regular musical playtime.

Because most kids respond positively to music, Nationwide Children’s created the “Sounds of Love in Early Childhood” music therapy program to promote joy, healing and learning in kids, at any developmental stage, between the ages of 6-24 months.

As Board Certified Music Therapists with additional NICU training, we help parents build new bonds and learning moments using music. Here are some music therapy tips:

EXPRESS YOURSELF. Overemphasize your facial expressions when singing to your child – this can help your baby’s emotional and social development. When your child is facing you, songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” are great to use.

MOVIN’ AND GROOVIN’. Around the age of 6 months, pick songs with gestures (i.e., “Itsy Bitsy Spider”). Help your child do the gestures and your child will start connecting gestures with the words while building motor skills. Between 12 and 18 months, choose songs like “Wheels on the Bus” that continue pairing gestures with words. “Hokey Pokey” is the perfect kind of song for ages 18-24 months to teach body parts and coordination.

BECOME A RECORDING STAR. No matter how pitch imperfect, a parent’s familiar voice is truly powerful. In the Nationwide Children’s Hospital NICU, where infants need critical care, we record parents singing and reading, and play their voice during the day. The sounds are soothing and appropriate for little ears. Lullabies, with their natural phrasing and long vowel sounds, emphasis the beginning building blocks of communication. Record yourself singing or reading to help establish a bedtime routine. Live is always best, but this works for times when you can’t be there!

PAUSE BUTTON. For our NICU newborns, we only play music or sing for 20-30 minutes at a time, for a maximum daily total of 3-4 hours. More than that could be too stimulating for some babies. At home, babies enjoy and tolerate as much active music making as possible. When playing recordings we still suggest limiting their use so that the music is always purposeful (i.e. soothing, bedtime, or playtime).

MUSICAL PAIRS. Consider taking your baby to a music class. In community outpatient classes, we see learning accelerate when babies try to copy each other. Additionally, you will learn new and fun ways to help your baby grow. If your baby was in the NICU or has a condition that causes developmental delays, look for a class that tailors the curriculum to your baby’s changing needs and gives you weekly progress reports. For preemies with weakened immune systems, sanitation is extremely important – find out the process for keeping instruments and floors clean.

TURN DOWN TRANSITION TANTRUMS. One of the most difficult skills for children to master is switching from one activity to another. Even if the activity is familiar, change can be stressful. Establish a routine song that gives kids a signal that it’s time to make a change. In our class, we have a song for clean-up time. Additionally, use songs for daily activities like brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, or getting into the car. If you start the routine as a baby, by age 2, toddlers will be able to transition with ease.

If you are interested in learning more about Nationwide Children’s NICU Music Therapy program or outpatient “Sounds of Love in Early Childhood” classes, please click here for more information, or email Community Education at


Ellyn Hamm, MM, MT-BC
Ellyn Hamm, MM, MT-BC is a NICU music therapist and published researcher in the Department of Neonatology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She received her Master of Music in Music Therapy from Florida State University and Bachelor of Music in Music Therapy from The University of Alabama.She has extensive training in NICU Music Therapy techniques and interventions over the past 5 years, most recently working at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt as a music therapist and researcher in the Division of Neonatology. She is a leading expert in the clinical use of the PAL® (Pacifier Activated Lullaby) with mother’s voice, focusing on infants with severe white matter injury, and has trained over 100 nurses, therapists, and researchers in the use of this device across the United States.Ellyn is also a productive and collaborative researcher, with several published research studies and ongoing projects in music therapy programs in Florida, Alabama, and Kentucky. Her research studies focus on the neurodevelopment of preterm infants and how the use of music- and language-based rehabilitative interventions can best aid in their development. In addition to her clinical and research work Ellyn has also served as an adjunct professor in Music Therapy at Belmont University.
Lelia Emery, MT-BC
Lelia Emery received her bachelor’s degree at the University of Alabama and is currently pursuing her masters of music therapy at Shenandoah University. She is one of the NICU Music Therapists at Nationwide Children's Hospital. She has extensive experience working with infants, toddlers, and their caregivers both in the hospital setting and the community. Prior to her current position, Mrs. Emery worked at Gymboree Play and Music where she led music and play classes for infants, toddlers, and their caregivers.

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