Many children use a pacifier, but a high-tech take on the childhood staple is being used to help premature babies learn to eat on their own.
Hillary Stenner spends every chance she gets with her son, Tobin.
"He's 3 pounds, 12 ounces," Stenner said.
Tobin was born early at 28 weeks and 3 days. He's in the NICU but is making great progress.
"He started nursing really great. He's breathing good and thinks he's older than he really is," Stenner said.
And his mother's voice may be the reason why.
Tobin's pacifier is hooked up to a tiny machine that plays a recording of his mom's voice when he uses it.
"They get it within one to two tries. They love their mom's voice," said pediatrician Dr. Nathalie Maitre at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
The breakthrough is the work of a team at Vanderbilt led by Maitre.
She says preemies take longer to learn to suck and swallow and they struggle with eating. So doctors wanted to find a way to help the babies learn these vital skills.
Maitre's team studied 94 newborns, dividing the babies into two groups. One group got the musical pacifiers while the other group got regular pacifiers.
During the three-month project, those with the special pacifiers learned to eat faster.
"It made feeding tubes go away within seven days faster than babies who didn't get it," Maitre said.
And that means they were able to leave the hospital several days before the other babies.
John Sherier is now 15 months old. He was born four months early and weighed just 1 pound, 8 ounces.
"This was his first diaper," said his mother, Rachel Sherier. "It fits in my hand, and this diaper was big on him when he wore it."
John used the musical pacifier as his mom watched him respond to her voice.
"He would notice that it stopped, and he would start sucking again. So the point was for him to suck and swallow to learn how to eat by mouth instead of through a tube, because preemies can't do it," Rachel Sherier said.
Finally, after 134 days, he was able to go home.
And as Stenner pointed out, the mother's voice is powerful.
"I sang all the time when he was in my belly, so it makes sense that it would be good for him here," she said.
Research has shown that babies as young as 28 weeks begin to recognize their mother's voice while still in the womb.
Doctors say it's not just about the health benefits here. They call the musical pacifier a bonding experience as well.
Copyright 2014 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.