New pacifier helping premature babies in NICU

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SANTA MONICA, Calif. (CBS) A new device is giving comfort to newborns in intensive care, and their parents. It's a pacifier that plays lullabies and is helping the sickest babies get stronger.

Pamela Yunga never expected her son's life would begin in the neonatal ICU, but after a rupture of the fetal membrane, Braxton Peter came into the world nearly two months early.

"He is a total miracle. He was in my uterus for close to five weeks with no fluids," Yunga said.

Like many of the 380,000 babies born premature each year in the U.S., Braxton Peter's reflexes to suck, swallow and breathe are not fully developed, so therapists at UCLA Mattel's Children's Hospital are studying whether music can help babies like him grow stronger.

"Music does so much for our premature infants and for their families," music therapist Jenna Bollard said.

Bollard is researching a new device called the pacifier-activated lullaby or PAL. It uses music as positive re-enforcement to help premature infants improve reflexes.

Parents write and record a special lullaby which is then recorded in the PAL. The device links a pacifier to a small speaker that's placed next to the child.

"When the infant sucks the pacifier it gently plays the song and then stops when the infant stops sucking," Bollard said.

Hearing their parents voices is a big incentive for babies. Researchers say 70 percent improved their use of a pacifier, which can lead to better ability to feed and shorter hospital stays.

Yunga says the device also helps her feel closer to her son, knowing he's being soothed and has less stress when she has to be away from him at work. "He's very calm, calm and collected. Yeah, his heart rate goes down, very steady," she said.

She says the singing will continue when she finally takes her little boy home.