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Performer offers incredible music for NICU newborns

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ATLANTA, Ga. -      As a cellist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Jennifer Humphreys usually performs for packed houses of classical music buffs, not one-little sleeping baby out in a hallway at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.  But if three-week-old Josiah Suarez needs a soundtrack for his dreams, she’s happy to oblige him. 

     Humphreys, who has been playing the cello since she was six, says “This is the my first time playing here at the NICU. I've always been a strong believer in the healing power of music.   And it could be because my mom would take me to play in nursing homes when I was little.”  She adds, "You can see it in people's faces, and whether it's with the patients or with the nurses, or the families that are here."

        Every year about 500,000 American babies are born too soon and end up in a neonatal intensive care units  Many will stay for months, surrounded by nurses, caregivers, and monitors that beep 24-7.

     So, for this one hour, Humphreys trades the stage for the hallway outside Children's NICU, to see if she can work her magic.

      Using music in medicine isn't new, but there is growing evidence classical music may help soothe medical-fragile babies in the NICU.  In one study, published last year in the journal “Pediatrics,” researchers played recorded music in eleven hospital NICUs, tracking the babies' vital signs.  They found music brought down the babies’ heart rate, calmed their breathing, even helped the babies suck, so they could feed.  And it seemed to help them sleep – and remain in a state of calm alertness when they were awake.

      Another study found playing soothing music helped newborns recover from painful procedures, like heel sticks to test their blood.  

      But Jennifer Humphreys is not a music therapist, just a volunteer, with an audience of one: Josiah.  His father Eddie Suarez, who wheeled him out into a hallway in a small red wagon, says, “He's doing pretty good.  He started off a little rough.  He had a pneumothorax, which is like a tear in his lung.  Babies heal pretty quickly, so he came back strongly.  And then we found out he had another issue with his kidneys."

      Josiah needed surgery, and his parents don't know when they'll be able to take him home.   So, Humphreys’ impromptu concert is a nice distraction.  Suarez says, “It's really relaxing to sit out there, enjoy some cookies and just kind of just be in the moment, rather than just be inside of the NICU."

     Even out here in the hallways it's pretty clear Jennifer Humphreys is a sleep-whisperer.  Watching Josiah, she says, the babies seemed calmed by her cello.  She says, “I haven't determined if it's a specific thing.  They focus on you, and I'm not sure if it's the sound, or the movements, but they definitely zone in and are kind of in a trance whenever I'm playing.  It feels great it really does.”

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