How Music Therapy Soothes Seriously Ill Children

Music therapy comes with many benefits that can help children struggling with illnesses.

Main image courtesy of StatNews.

Life can be incredibly difficult when your child is seriously ill-- whether suffering from a terminal illness, life-altering genetic condition, or anything else that can upend your family’s life for a considerable period of time. Any parent knows that watching your child struggle through each day is incredibly painful-- to say nothing of the pain and confusion the child may be experiencing him or herself.

In difficult times like these, parents are often left scrambling to figure out how to handle the stress. How can they help their child-- what should medical care for their child’s specific illness look like? How do they manage the stress and uncertainty of a situation that they never anticipated?

The answers are not all clear-cut. Everyone’s situation is unique, and the same thing doesn’t work for everyone. But there are plenty of treatment options to help seriously ill children, even if it’s as simple as improving their spirits as they undergo more invasive operations. One of these many treatment options is music therapy-- it has repeatedly been shown to have positive effects on children, even those suffering from severe illnesses.

But how does this work? We’ll go through the benefits of music therapy and explore how those benefits can apply to the lives of ill children.

What Are the Benefits of Music Therapy?

A little boy in a hat holding a pair of drumsticks
Music therapy has plenty of health benefits. Image courtesy of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospitals Foundation.

Music therapy has repeatedly been shown to have a variety of positive effects on people’s health, both physical and mental, and these positive effects have a lot to do with the different parts of the brain that music stimulates.

For example, when you listen to music, your limbic system is stimulated-- and the limbic system is responsible for your emotional responses to the world around you. When the limbic system reacts to music, it has a tendency to call forward positive, calming emotions-- in fact, it’s rather rare for music to provoke negative emotional responses in people, even when a song is sad. But music goes further than merely eliciting positive emotions-- it actually inhibits the function of the amygdala, which transmits negative emotions like sadness, anger, and fear. Due to music’s stimulation of the limbic system and suppression of the amygdala, it’s a very effective way to manage stress, grief, or other negative emotions.

Music therapy also has plenty of benefits for people with physical impairments or who struggle to communicate. Most people have felt the impulse to move in response to music before, and it’s no coincidence. Music stimulates the cerebellum, which is responsible for coordinating movement. As a result, even people whose mobility is severely impaired or who are struggling through physical rehabilitation are likely to move in response to music-- which, in turn, helps strengthen the muscle memory needed to perform certain physical actions, like walking.

It’s a similar story with communication. Human beings have a gift for vocal imitation-- and we do it constantly. Even those who have lost the ability to speak outright are frequently vocally responsive to music-- people hum and sing along to music no matter what. Providing music therapy to those whose communication is impaired helps them develop communication skills-- whether that means learning to modulate the pitch and tone of their voices, learning to speak again after losing the ability, or simply allowing them to express themselves vocally by singing.

So, music therapy treatment has been proven to positively affect patients of all types, helping people manage their mental health and stress levels, recover their mobility, develop communication skills, or simply stay responsive when they are seriously ill. How can all of these benefits apply to struggling children and their families, specifically?

Music Therapy for Children

A small boy playing with a woman holding a guitar
The benefits of music therapy apply easily to ill children. Image courtesy of Music Therapy Pune.

Of course, there is a wide range of illnesses and conditions that can severely impact children’s health and well-being-- so it’s impossible to provide an exhaustive list of the ways in which music therapy can help children. Some children benefit more from music therapy than others-- but it’s still worth noting some of the ways that it can complement children’s primary medical treatments.

Music therapy treatment plans are always individualized, formulated on the specific needs of each individual patient. For children suffering from severe illnesses-- terminal or otherwise-- this frequently means that music therapists are primarily seeking to just improve their patients’ quality of life while they are in the hospital. This means that music’s ability to help people relax physically and mentally while also relieving pain is invaluable to suffering children.

Music therapy’s ability to help people communicate vocally-- whether or not they can speak-- and move is also hugely useful in treating ill children. Many conditions or illnesses that affect young children prevent them from being able to move or speak normally, but music therapy can help them express themselves with whatever vocal range and movement range they have.

For example, Kian Finnegan-- a child who passed away from brain cancer at only three years old-- was unable to speak or move during his illness, according to his mother, Adrienne. But in music therapy, he would manage to do those things anyway-- “he would sing, and he would bop” when he heard a song, even though his life was extremely difficult. In his case-- and in many, many others-- music therapy provided comfort and improved his quality of life, even though it could not solve every problem. In many cases, that comfort means the world to parents watching their child struggle.

Music therapy can also prove useful to the families of struggling children. Understandably, it is incredibly stressful and potentially traumatic to have to watch your child suffer, especially when you aren’t quite sure what the best way to help them is. With all of this stress and uncertainty, using music as a method of trying to alleviate your fears, grief, and stress is one of the best and most accessible ways of coping. Music therapy is certainly more than justifiable insofar as it can improve a sick child’s life and help curb the pain that they are undergoing-- but its ability to help parents and relatives, too, is important to keep in mind.

Music Therapy in the Future

An infant in a hospital, next to someone playing guitar
Music therapy research continues to develop. Image courtesy of SFGate.

As research into music therapy continues, scientists and doctors continuously discover more and more ways that it can positively impact people on all walks of life. The known benefits of music therapy for children are already numerous-- and children’s hospitals have responded to this information by growing and developing their music therapy programs considerably over the past few decades.

As research methods improve with time, and scientists continue to discover correlations between music and patient health, this trend is sure to continue. When sick children and their families face the darkest moments in their lives together, it is important to provide them with every bit of support and assistance available-- and music therapy is, and should continue to be, one of the most personal and accessible support programs out there for these families.

Skyler Watkins
Skyler Watkins is an aspiring author and editor located in Columbus, Ohio.
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