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New Study: Talking to premature babies increases language development

A premature baby born 2 1/2 months early on machines in the NICU.
A premature baby born 2 1/2 months early on machines in the NICU.

In the latest study on the importance of talking to babies, Brown University researchers tracked the number of words premature babies in NICU units heard from parents and found those who heard more of them had more developed communication skills into toddler-hood.

The study is set to be published in the March issue of Pediatrics.

The findings are significant, according to the Brown research team, because it is well known that premature babies often suffer from language delays. This study shows that direct, consistent and even varied adult communication with premature infants can make a difference.

The American Association of Pediatrics concludes that “parents should be encouraged to talk to their preterm babies while in the NICU to avoid risk of language delay.”

For the study, researchers  followed 36 babies born eight weeks premature and placed in the neonatal intensive care unit at Women & Infants Hospital in Rhode Island. They monitored the interaction of parents and other adults in the NICU and counted the number of words spoken to the newborns -- including singing.

They also took note of when adults -- nurses or doctors -- were talking within earshot of the baby but not directly to him or her.

Some premature infants in the study had parents who talked directly to them, while other parents simply held and rocked the babies or caressed them but didn’t talk or sing much. Other parents were not very present, having returned to work to save leave time for when the baby came home. In the latter two cases, the infants didn’t hear many words spoken directly to them.

Researchers made a 16-hour-long digital recording of the interactions at two points while the baby was still pre-term - at the equivalent of the 32nd and 36th week of gestation.

Months later, when the infants were 7 months and 18 months, investigators studied the same 36 babies.

They found that when a baby was 32 weeks old, for each additional 100 adult words she heard, she demonstrated a 2-point improvement in language scores.  When a baby heard higher word counts at both 32 and 36 weeks, at 18-months she displayed higher expressive communication skills.