Ukes for Dads helps fathers get support and bond with NICU babies

These dads can't easily hold, touch or feed their babies. But they can play music for them.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

When SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital restricted visitors to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) because of COVID-19, Aaron Dohogne worried about still being able to bond with his son, John.

So Dohogne reached for his ukulele and started recording himself playing and singing.

When his wife Maeve — who visited their son every day — showed baby John the videos he’d perk up and stare.

“John seemed to be very attentive to what was going on,” Dohogne, 35, a high school history teacher in St. Louis, told TODAY Parents. “He would recognize my voice.”

Aaron Dohogne learned how to play ukulele to bond with his son, John, who has been in the neonatal intensive care unit for almost a year. He says even nurses smile when they hear him playing a song they like. Courtesy SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital

Having the video also helped Maeve feel some relief that father and son could interact: Even if it was in a non-traditional way.

“It was just a really great moment for her and for John because the video could ease the burden on her for a little bit and John got to hear his dad’s voice again,” Dohogne said. “It was music inspired so it was a different kind of moment.”

John was born on July 3, 2019 with a diaphragmatic hernia, which compressed his organs and stymied his lung development. He needed to stay in the NICU to grow and thrive. At first, they thought he would be coming home in the spring, but then the family learned he had neurological delays and needed more time for treatment. From the start, coping with having their first baby in the NICU felt tough.

“Sometimes we would get phone calls in the middle of the night telling us that John was having a bad night and couldn't breathe well,” he said. “But for the most part it was OK.”

As time passed and the couple received more news about John’s condition, it became harder to grapple with it. Then the pandemic hit. But Dohogne had already been playing the ukulele thanks to the music therapy program at the hospital. He loves that performing for his son feels nurturing, even when medical equipment prevented him from easily holding, touching or feeding John.

“I’ve been playing ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ for him and he just lays there and listens,” Dohogne said. “He seems to enjoy it.”

Music therapist Kelli McKee founded the Ukes for Dads program in fall 2019 and Dohogne was one of her first recruits. It’s easier for people to learn a ukulele than other instruments, she said. And playing a ukulele gives dads a unique way to interact with their children and boost their babies’ health.

“Music is important for continued brain development and early language development and it can help with calming and soothing and improving vital signs as well, in terms of heart rate and oxygen saturation,” she told TODAY Parents. “There are definitely tangible results.”

What’s more, it helps dads feel supported and less alone. Many of the programs in NICUs for parents focus on moms’ wellbeing.

“One of those benefits was the social engagement and connection and support of dads going through the same journey,” she explained. “Inevitably we’d be playing and learning chords and someone would ask, ‘How old is your baby?’ or ‘What are they in for?’ … and the dads would just get to know each other. It provided camaraderie.”

Kelli McKee, a music therapist, started the Ukes for Dads program to help dads bond with their babies in the neonatal intensive care unit and give them a support group of other dads going through something similar. Courtesy SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital

John will be turning 1 in a few weeks and Dohogne hopes that his son will be coming home soon after that. He’s glad they’ll have a tradition when his son comes home.

“Sometimes I try to get John to like pluck the strings or put his hands on the fret board or something like that,” he said. “Whenever we play music for John, at least for me, I feel like we’re help him and instilling the value (of music) and that’s important.”