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StoriesCaroline Bryan ’22

Critical care: Expressive Arts Therapy student brings healing to premature infants, parents

Caroline Bryan cares for families in crisis while introducing colleagues to expressive arts

Woman looks through a small harp at a child
Caroline Bryan plays the harp for a child. Photo courtesy: Noah's Children

Every day, Caroline Bryan brings healing to babies through music. As the Newborn and Infant Critical Care Unit (NICCU) expressive arts therapy resident at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Caroline works with premature and sick infants and their parents, offering both music and expressive therapy.

A board-certified music therapist and a second-year student in our Expressive Arts Therapy master’s program, Caroline first learned that her passion for art and sound could be translated into helping people when, as a high school student, she volunteered to play her harp at local hospitals.

“They placed me in a surgical lobby, oncology lobbies and such, and one of the areas was in the lobby of a NICU (neonatal intensive care unit),” says Caroline. “That was when I first heard about music therapy and the fact that this could be a thing for babies.”

Large sculpture of children's ABC blocks
Caroline Bryan's internship at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles has focused on NICCU infants and their families. Photo courtesy: Children's Hospital Los Angeles

Caroline, who grew up taking care of younger cousins, gravitated to helping children after receiving a graduate certificate in music therapy. Her first job was at a nonprofit called Noah’s Children, which offers palliative and hospice care for children.

“I always say that it was such a joyful job because of how they would light up when they saw their favorite instrument come out or when their favorite song came on.”

Caroline expanded her studies to a master’s degree in Expressive Arts Therapy at Lesley, through which she could encompass her expertise in music as well as her interest in art. Her internship and residency at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has allowed her to exercise both interests while also educating her colleagues on the importance of music and expressive arts in the healing process.

Caroline, a multi-instrumentalist, says many people assume her role is simply to play music for ailing babies.

“That sounds really sweet, but there's so much more that I'm doing,” she says.

Research shows that music therapy can improve neural development in infants and help them prepare for the much louder world outside the hospital walls. Caroline says that may mean humming to help babies regulate their breathing or heart rate or adding song or an instrument to acclimate them to more complex sounds. Through music therapy she can also teach them to calm their minds and heart rates.

“With that neurodevelopment comes their cognitive development, their language development through the lyrics, and especially if a parent is able to write a song, then they're continuing to build that language development with the parent’s words,” she explains.

"This is an evidence-based field. I wanted to make sure that was being acknowledged."
Caroline Bryan ’22, Expressive Art Therapy
Caroline Bryan has a music therapy session with a child. Photo courtesy: Noah's Children

Many of the infants are unable to move much, but Caroline says they still make their musical preference known.

“I'm always watching for those overstimulation signs,” she says.

Some babies will put up a hand if they’re overwhelmed by or don’t like a sound. Caroline has also noticed that babies whose parents don’t speak English may prefer humming or become more alert if Caroline sings in the language of their parents.

Whenever possible, she tries to incorporate family through expressive arts therapy. Parents are often in a state of grief, fear and confusion when their expectation of bringing home a healthy baby is thrown into turmoil. Using whatever form of art the family is comfortable with, Caroline leads them through exercises to process their emotions.

The yearlong residency, which fulfills one of the internship requirements for the Expressive Arts Therapy master’s program, has been a learning curve for Caroline. She has studied how to work with and respond to fragile babies surrounded by machines and tubes and also how to advocate for expressive therapies in the hospital. Many people are acquainted with music therapy, she says, but expressive arts is new to them.

Caroline recently gave a presentation to NICCU medical staff. “This is an evidence-based field. I wanted to make sure that was being acknowledged,” she says.

Woman plays ukulele for a child in a wheelchair
A certified music therapist, Caroline Bryan worked with children in hospice and palliative care before beginning her Expressive Arts Therapy master's degree at Lesley. Photo courtesy: Noah's Children

As her residency wraps up, Caroline says she’s interested in pursuing a variety of ways through which to use her training—from working with doulas to mothers dealing with substance abuse or mental illness. But before she goes, she still has some work to do.

Caroline wants to make sure “when it comes to music therapy and expressive arts therapy that we really are looking at the bigger picture, from the families that need that support to the staff. They need that support, too. That's been my biggest takeaway is really making sure that the services are broad in the sense so that the whole village gets the support that they need,” she says.

After a hectic year working in a hospital during a pandemic, Caroline is hoping to expand her focus to her coworkers. She has some ideas that might convince even her most skeptical colleagues of the benefits of music therapy.

“I am working on getting a karaoke thing going for the medical professionals,” she says.

Learn more about Expressive Therapies at Lesley

Nearly 50 years ago, we channeled our strengths in therapy, education, and the arts and founded the field of Expressive Therapies. Today, we are the only university in the world that teaches all 5 specializations, with Clinical Mental Health Counseling master's degree programs in Art Therapy, Music Therapy, Dance/Movement Therapy, Drama Therapy, and Expressive Arts Therapy.

Explore all of our undergraduate and graduate programs in Expressive Therapies. Join our alumni who work in rewarding careers as art therapists, music therapists, clinical supervisors, substance abuse counselors, and in other helping professions.