DANVERS — When Nicole Lamar's daughter was born last year, 21/2 months premature, a researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital asked if she would take part in a study.
They wanted to see whether the sound of a mother's voice and heartbeat, recorded and played in the baby's crib, would help a preemie thrive even when the mother couldn't be there to cuddle the baby herself.
Lamar, 31, a second-grade teacher at Thorpe School and 1998 graduate of Danvers High, agreed.
Soon, she was recorded singing "Hush, Little Baby," reading "Goodnight Moon" and simply talking conversationally to her new daughter, Maggie. Once she started talking, her husband, Nathan, remembers, the floodgates opened, and she spoke about how everyone could not wait to meet the baby.
Maggie weighed just 3 pounds, 4 ounces at birth and would spend 48 days in the neonatal intensive care unit. Three times each day, the recordings were played for the baby.
The study is being conducted by Dr. Amir Lahav of Brigham and Women's, a father of premature twins who came up with the idea when his own children were in the neonatal intensive care unit. He designed the study to see if cognitive and physical development in a premature infant could be boosted by maternal sounds fed by speakers into an incubator, mimicking what a baby might hear in the womb.
The study aims to see if such sounds might lead to greater weight gain and shorter hospital stays in preemies when compared with those babies who do not receive such stimulation.
For the Lamars, it was a way for Nicole to be present for her baby when she couldn't be there physically. Nicole, who was on leave from her teaching job, spent as much time as she could with her newborn, but just visiting Maggie for several hours each day was a challenge.
Most days, she would drop off her oldest daughter, Addison, now 4, at 8 a.m. at her sister Tammy Ryan's house, where a family friend would care for the girl. Nicole would get to the Boston hospital at 9 a.m. and stay until 1 p.m., when she had to leave to pick up Addie. Her husband would visit Maggie after dinner and stay until 11 p.m.
Maggie came home three weeks early, and her weight gain was fairly consistent, Nicole said.
"I truly believe her being in the study helped," she said.
Lahav said the study has a goal of studying 100 premature babies, with 50 enrolled so far.
"So far, we do not have direct evidence that exposure to maternal sounds inside the incubator will improve brain development," he said.
He is looking at whether the maternal sounds give babies more stable breathing patterns, so that they are less likely to have episodes of sleep apnea, in which they stop breathing for up to 20 seconds. Over time, that could lead to brain injury.
Maternal sounds may "reduce in a non-pharmacological way the number of episodes," Lahav said. Babies who receive maternal sounds gain more weight than those who do not, he said.
"Every step of the way, Maggie has surpassed every milestone," said Tammy Ryan, Nicole Lamar's sister, who is also a teacher at Thorpe School and the mother of three children.
Lamar thinks so highly of Lahav's research that she now serves as chairwoman of the Lahav Lab's parent advisory committee.
To help Lahav's research get funding, the sisters plan to take part in the Twin Lights Half Marathon in Gloucester on May 12.
"Donations of any size are so appreciated, and that money goes to that lab," Lamar said.
To learn more about the Lahav Lab or make a donation, go to http://lahav-lab.bwh.harvard.edu/. Use the "tribute information" box to designate the donation in honor of Maggie Lamar.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.