I am a volunteer in the neonatal and pediatric wards of a major hospital. I sing, sometimes off-key, to infants and toddlers. Having crooned to hundreds of small children one-on-one since the late 1980s, I know that many youngsters would benefit from live music. Therefore, I propose that more people offer to serenade the little ones and that hospitals welcome such volunteers.
The demands of this charitable activity are not great. A hospital ward requires neither full command of the lyrics nor a beautiful voice. (I am the proof!) Normally the baby or toddler never heard the song before. Thus, the performer could forget words and miss high notes for all his listener would know.
However, there is one harsh requirement. After growing fond of a youngster, the singer may arrive one week to hear that the child died. The volunteer must accept that not every patient survives.
In my experience, toddlers and babies, including “preemies” who should still be in the womb, respond positively to many genres of music. They particularly appreciate upbeat, bouncy tunes sung softly several times over. The performer should avoid for these listeners sad songs and inappropriate lyrics. When the parents arrive, nobody should be serenading their little darling with “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time”!
I suggest three tests for judging a hospital recital for children. If the performer handed a howling baby satisfies one, the concert is a success.
The first test is snoozing. Particularly prized in a hospital is the singer who puts his audience to sleep!
My best performance under this test took place in a crowded ward. That day a baby and I were assigned a small space between two mothers breast-feeding their infants. When my recital ended, all three babies and one of the two mothers were sound asleep!
The second test is relaxing. A performer for infants tries to send the child into the alpha state. Under this test, the baby, though awake, is so mellow and “boneless” after the concert that he appears to have turned into Jell-O.
The third test, the medical improvement test, requires some sign, even small or temporary, of an improvement in the child’s physical condition. Numerous patients are attached to oxygen, tubes, and wires. Often their monitors show wild swings in the vital signs. Frequently I have seen the swings lessen or the baby’s breathing become more regular during a gig. This improvement cannot be solely attributable to hugging because sometimes the patient was lying in a crib.
Another common area for medical improvement involves food. Many newborns need to gain weight to be discharged. With music, I have often jollied underweight infants into drinking more baby formula than usual. I first realized the connection between music and food intake in the early 1990s. That day, after feeding and serenading every infant in the pediatric ward in turn, I overheard a nurse. She said, “I don’t know what’s going on today! All of the babies are eating incredible amounts!”
Singing can have a positive nutritional – and medicinal – impact even on infants fed through a tube. Based on my observations, a concert can sometimes prevent a child from spitting up food and the medication provided with it.
A baby born addicted to cocaine and heroin starred in one of my better performances under the medical improvement test. Like other infants experiencing withdrawal, she was agitated and jittery. After I had held and crooned to her awhile, she was calm. (I have had similar experiences with other infant addicts.) Intrigued, her nurse decided to administer a test while having me sing and cuddle the child. Despite the girl’s poor showing (50%), the nurse was delighted. That was the highest the baby had ever scored.
Some minors, including patients hospitalized for months, have parents who seldom visit. They could use someone to dispense music, along with cheer.
In fact, music therapy is a recognized profession. The therapist meets with clients (who may have physical, mental, or emotional problems) in a hospital, prison, office, or elsewhere. Unfortunately, a hospital may, for cost reasons, assign the professional few children and only fifteen minutes per youngster. (In contrast, I spend up to three hours of my three-hour session singing to a child.) Some studies indicate that infant patients receiving music therapy eat more, cry less, and leave the hospital sooner.
Amateur recitals present a “win-win” opportunity for the volunteer and his audience. The singer expands his song repertoire, gains the satisfaction of helping youngsters, and has fun in the process. His listener profits from the cheery break.
Indeed, the women over the centuries who sang to their grandchildren were wise. Based on my experience and that of professional music therapists, many young patients would benefit physically and emotionally from a private concert. For all these youngsters, I hope there is somebody willing to sing.