Premature babies benefit from adult talk, study finds

February 10, 2014 by Serena Gordon, Healthday Reporter
Premature babies benefit from adult talk, study finds
Starting in intensive care unit, 'conversations' appear to aid language development.

(HealthDay)—Premature infants face a number of challenges, including a known risk of language delay. But a new study suggests that exposing "preemies" to more adult language in the neonatal intensive care unit can increase their language abilities at 18 months.

"Parents have the power to make a difference in their child's development and academic success. Just by enjoying your child—singing, playing, telling stories—while riding in the car or having dinner, sharing your day with them," said the study's senior author, Dr. Betty Vohr, a professor of pediatrics at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

That type of quality time should be a part of a baby's time in the unit (NICU), according to Vohr. "The brain is a marvelous computer. It's enhanced the more it's stimulated," she explained.

But oftentimes in the NICU, people are quieter. Nurses and physicians may not interact much with the infants, and parents' visiting hours may be limited. Vohr said some working parents choose to work during the time their are in the NICU to save their family leave for when the baby comes home, which could limit the time they're available to talk to their baby.

"We need to provide more information to families about the importance of talking to babies," said Vohr.

One of every eight babies born in the United States is preterm—meaning born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study, published online Feb. 10 in Pediatrics, included 36 preterm infants. Their average age of gestation was 27 weeks and their average weight was 2.7 pounds, the authors said.

At what would have been the 32nd and 36th weeks of gestation—an average of approximately 5 and 9 weeks after birth—the researchers recorded 16 hours of sounds the babies heard using a digital language processor.

The processors kept track of adult words, conversational turns and child vocalizations. A conversational turn was when a vocal sound from the infant was followed by an adult's response within 5 seconds, or the opposite—when an adult spoke, followed by a noise from the child within 5 seconds. Crying didn't count as a vocalization.

The average total word count heard by an infant was 1,289 words at 32 weeks. There were an average of 15 conversational turns and 77 child vocalizations, according to the study. By 36 weeks, adult words reached 8,255. Conversational turns occurred on 36 occasions, and child vocalizations were heard 153 times.

The researchers assessed the babies' at 7 months and 18 months corrected ages. Corrected age means the age the baby would have been if born at full-term. So, a baby born at 28 weeks was born 12 weeks (3 months) early. To determine its corrected age, you subtract that 3 months from the baby's actual age. So, a 10-month-old born 12 weeks prematurely would have a corrected age of 7 months.

The investigators found that for every increase of 100 adult words per hour a baby heard at 32 weeks, there was a 2-point improvement in language scores, according to the study. At 36 weeks, every 100 adult words per hour heard led to a 1.2-point increase in language scores at 7 months.

"Children learn from conversations going on around them, but the back and forth communication is the most important," said Vohr. "Parents can make such a difference. Early language predicts language skills later on."

Vohr and her colleagues believe this early communication is so important that they have volunteers called "cuddlers" who spend time with the babies in the NICU and talk to them.

One expert called this a "useful" study. "It's always good to be able to point to a study as proof of something that we intuitively believe," said Lauren Kobritz Krause, chief of speech-language pathology at La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago.

"Kids born prematurely are at risk of having speech and delays or deficits. This has the potential to help, and it promotes the idea of the benefit of mom or another family member being there and talking to the baby," said Kobritz Krause.

"Talking and interaction helps with vocabulary development. Talk to your child and be part of their world, and include them in your world throughout the day," she suggested.

Explore further: Babbling babies—responding to one-on-one 'baby talk'—master more words

More information: Learn about preemies' developmental milestones from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Related Stories

Babbling babies—responding to one-on-one 'baby talk'—master more words

January 6, 2014
Common advice to new parents is that the more words babies hear the faster their vocabulary grows. Now new findings show that what spurs early language development isn't so much the quantity of words as the style of speech ...

Study correlates neonatal and early childhood outcomes with preterm birth

February 3, 2014
In a study to be presented on Feb. 6 at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine's annual meeting, The Pregnancy Meeting, in New Orleans, researchers will report on a correlation between initial neonatal and early childhood ...

Preemies' 'excessive' crying tied to risk of behavior problems later

January 7, 2014
(HealthDay)—Premature babies who cry a lot may be more likely than other preemies to have behavior problems by the time they reach preschool, a new study suggests.

Sign language instruction for babies does not speed, enhance language development, research shows

October 5, 2012
Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire have found no evidence to support claims that using baby signing with babies helps to accelerate their language development. In a paper to be published in Child Development, ...

One in three premature babies fare less well at school

October 17, 2013
New research shows that almost one in three children born prematurely (before 37 weeks) have lower Key Stage 1 (KS1) test results than children who are born at full term (37-42 weeks) and more than a third have special educational ...

'Sensitive' older sibling may help boost preschoolers' language skills

January 27, 2014
(HealthDay)—Preschoolers with lots of brothers and sisters seem to develop language skills a bit slower than other kids—possibly because they get less attention from mom and dad.

Recommended for you

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

NeuroNext biomarker study explores natural history of infantile-onset SMA

January 9, 2018
Research led by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to define the natural history of infantile-onset spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) has been "critical" to accelerate the development of effective therapies and hasten ...

No link between childhood lead levels, later criminality

December 27, 2017
(HealthDay)— Exposure to higher levels of lead during early childhood can affect neurological development—but does that mean affected kids are doomed to delinquency?

Early puberty in girls may take mental health toll

December 26, 2017
(HealthDay)—A girl who gets her first menstrual period early in life—possibly as young as 7—has a greater risk for developing depression and antisocial behaviors that last at least into her 20s, a new study suggests.

Technology not taking over children's lives despite screen-time increase

December 21, 2017
With children spending increasing amounts of time on screen-based devices, there is a common perception that technology is taking over their lives, to the detriment and exclusion of other activities. However, new Oxford University ...

Higher blood sugar in early pregnancy raises baby's heart-defect risk

December 15, 2017
Higher blood sugar early in pregnancy raises the baby's risk of a congenital heart defect, even among mothers who do not have diabetes, according to a study led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.