Preterm Babies Benefit from More "Adult Talk"


I love you, sweet baby!

Can you repeat this five-word phrase at least 20 times per hour? If you're a mom to a preterm baby, adding these 100 words (or any 100 extra words) to how much you say to your baby may make a big difference in your child's speech development, according to new research linking adult speech exposure in preterm infants with their later speech development as toddlers.

It's long been recognized that preterm infants are at higher risk for language delays. In the new study, published in the March 2014 issue of Pediatrics, researchers from a hospital in Rhode Island recorded 16 hours of sounds in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The goal was to test the connection between the amount of talking a baby was exposed to at what would have been week 32 and week 36 of pregnancy (if the baby had been born full-term) and how well the baby scored on certain speech development tests at 18 months.

Related: 26 tips for surviving baby's first year

Recorders were set up near mothers and their babies to capture the sounds of their interactions including the adult word count, child vocalizations and "conversation turns" (words of mother or vocalizations of infant within five seconds.) Here's a fun fact the study also turned up: premature infants can vocalize (make sounds) up to eight weeks before their mother's due date and vocalize more when their mothers are present in the NICU than when they are cared for by NICU staff.

Researchers then analyzed the sounds they had collected using specialized sound/word distinction software. At 7 months and 18 months, researchers met again with the mothers and babies to test their speech development.

What did researchers discover?

Every increase by 100 adult words per hour the babies were exposed to at age 32 weeks resulted in a 2-point increase in language composite scores at 18 months, and a 0.5-point increase in expressive communication scores. For every 100 adult words per hour at age 36 weeks, there was an increase of 1.2 points in language scores at 7 months, and an increase of 0.3 points in expressive communication scores at 18 months.

What does this mean for parents? Talk to your preterm baby, even more than you might think. If you're at a loss for words, read a children's picture book or recite a poem. What's important is the interaction between you and your baby.

One easy way to remember 100 words? It's just about the same number of words found in lullaby, "Hush Little Baby (Don't Say a Word)." When in doubt, just start singing!

For 5 things to know about preterm labor, visit BabyZone!

-By Jacqueline Tourville

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