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Preemies develop better language skills when parents talk to them

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Parents who talk directly to their premature infants help them develop better language skills, according to a new study published in the Feb. 10 online edition of Pediatrics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one out of every eight babies born in the U.S. is preterm – born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, three weeks shy of full term. Among the challenges faced by these infants is the risk of language delay.

To determine if exposure to “adult language” benefits preemies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), researchers led by Betty Vohr, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Rhode Island’s Brown University, followed 36 preterm infants with an average gestation period of 27 weeks and an average weight of 2.7 pounds.

When the babies in the study were 32 weeks old (born eight weeks before their mother’s due date) and 36 weeks old (born four weeks before their due date), the researchers recorded 16 hours of sounds heard by the babies in the NICU, including conversation addressed directly to them by their parents.

Vohr and her team followed up when the infants were 7 and 18 months old to test their cognitive and language skills, including how well they communicated by receiving and expressing themselves, either through vocalization or their first words.

Study results showed that for every increase in 100 words that adults spoke to preemies, there was a two-fold increase in their language scores at 18 months, and a half-point increase in their expressive communication score.

“To me it’s amazing that eight weeks before their expected delivery, the role of the parent is so powerful in predicting language outcome,” Vohr told Time.

For the researchers, the findings that language delays can be minimized by having parents talk to their babies early on holds great promise.

“Our conclusion is that it’s really important for moms to come into the NICU, and for them to talk to their babies,” said Vohr.

In addition, Vohr pointed to the fact that while most of NICU care involves the latest technology and expensive equipment, having mom or dad talk to their baby doesn’t cost anything.

“This just really involves talking to moms and informing them that you have an important role here, and you can make a big difference for your baby,” she said.

And conversing with your child should not stop at the NICU. Vohr told HealthDay that parents can help 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.”

“Talking and interaction helps with vocabulary development. Talk to your child and be a part of their world, and include them in your world throughout the day,” added Vohr.

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