A first-of-its-kind study at the University of Minnesota will explore whether music can soothe pain and aid growth and development for infants born prematurely and placed in neonatal intensive care.

Researchers at the U’s Masonic Children’s Hospital will monitor brain growth and pain responses in 30 babies who listen to lullaby music and in 30 babies who don’t. An $800,000 federal grant supports the study, which will start next year.

“The opportunity to study whether an alternative treatment approach, such as music therapy, might improve neonatal brain development is incredible,” said Dr. Sonya Wang, a pediatric neurologist with M Health Fairview, the parent organization for the U pediatric hospital. “We have medical procedures that improve neonatal survival. Now, we need to optimize neurological growth.”

Babies in the study will have headphones placed within 1 centimeter of their ears. Half will hear recorded lullabies while the rest will serve as study controls and hear no music. Their brain growth and activity will be charted by electroencephalography during their hospital stays, and by follow-up memory tests after they go home.

The study is a collaboration with researchers from the U’s schools of music, public health and engineering. Wang said other studies have examined music’s impact on neonates, but only for a few days, whereas this study will monitor their progress over six weeks.

“We all know that learning patterns develop because you do a little bit at a time,” she said. “Our brains learn one step at a time, and it’s additive.”

Nearly 7% of single births in Minnesota are classified as premature — at or before 37 weeks gestation. That equals about 4,700 babies in the state each year. Multiple births add more to the state’s total.

Babies born prematurely have higher rates of infant mortality and complications such as learning problems, breathing disorders and digestive issues. Maternal risk factors include smoking during pregnancy and suffering from hypertension.