Drawing on the instinctive power of song, Lullaby Hour brings music to sick and premature babies who are in hospital.
In a quiet corner of a neo-natal ward at a London hospital Shermel Walters holds her tiny baby, Eden, close to her chest.
This skin-to-skin contact is vital for all babies, especially ones like Eden who was born premature.
But Shermel and Eden are not alone. Next to them sits Emma Stevens, a professional singer who strums a ukulele and performs a soothing song. This is Lullaby Hour at the Winnicot Baby Unit at St Mary’s Hospital, which cares for infants who were born prematurely (as early as 24 weeks), or who are very sick.
Emma pays regular visits to St Mary’s and Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea hospitals to sing to parents and their babies. The aim is to promote the bond between parent and child, and to soothe and relax.
“It’s amazing the connection people have with music,” says Emma. “Sometimes parents get very emotional. But I just keep singing. I don’t feel it’s my place to get teary or cry.”
Shermel, who has already spent six weeks with Eden at the Winnicot Baby Unit, says: “The first time Emma sang to me I was reduced to tears. It was just so beautiful.”
How Lullaby Hour got started
It was developed at the Children’s Heart Unit at Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-upon-Tyne by the charity Music in Hospitals and Care (MiHC).
MiHC was delivering daytime play concerts at the unit but some children and babies were too ill to participate so it trialled early evening bedside sessions to help the children settle. And Lullaby Hour was born.
Since then, Lullaby Hour has been expanded into many hospitals in the UK and won a national award for innovation from the Scottish Power Foundation.
Lullaby Hour comes London
Lullaby Hour sessions at St Mary’s and Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea hospitals started four months ago. They are delivered in partnership with Imperial Health Charity, which supports the five hospitals of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust through grants, arts, volunteering and fundraising.
Neonatal consultant Jayanta Banerjee says the feedback from parents and staff has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Mothers of premature babies often feel intense guilt about delivering a baby early,” he says. “They are under tremendous strain and this calms them down.
“We have seen some very emotional outpourings [during Lullaby Hour]. Often the mothers hold it all in and when the music starts they experience quite a release.”
It turns out Lullaby Hour is good for the staff too. “They’re under a lot of stress. This is something that is very personal that cuts through the medicalised environment.”
And of course it’s beneficial for the babies too. Jayanta points out that medical studies have found singing to premature and sick babies can help normalise their heartbeat and help them feed and sleep.
Lullaby Hour Songbook and CD
To build on the success of Lullaby Hour, MiHC, with funding from the Arts Council England and the Scottish Power Foundation, has published the Lullaby Hour Songbook and CD.
The book and CD came about after families from the Freeman Hospital requested CDs of the lullabies that they could take home to keep.
The songbook was launched last week by BBC3 presenter Katie Derham, who visited St Mary’s to witness Lullaby Hour for herself.
“I used to sing to my kids all the time, so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s so successful,” says Katie, a longtime supporter of MiHC. “But it’s wonderful to see it in situ. Cuddling your baby and singing to them is such an instinctive and powerful thing. It’s interesting how much medical evidence there is to back that up.”
The songbook and audio are available to buy HERE. Proceeds from sales will go towards Lullaby Hour sessions across the UK.