Language development
Talkative parents can improve language skills in premature babies

THE QUESTION Does exposure to adult voices affect the development of language and cognitive skills in premature infants, who often develop in these areas later than babies carried full term?

THIS STUDY involved 36 medically stable premature babies, on average born 13 weeks early and weighing about two pounds at birth. While the babies were in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit, a device in the pocket of the babies’ wraps recorded sounds they heard, including their parents talking to them. When the infants were at “corrected” ages of 7 and 18 months (meaning their age since birth minus the number of weeks they were premature), their language skills were assessed using a standardized rating scale. As the number of words that had been spoken by their parents increased, so did the babies’ scores, with those exposed to the most parental talk having the most developed language skills, both receptive (understanding what’s being said) and expressive (communicating to others). The mother’s education level did not affect the findings.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Children born prematurely, who often spend an extended time in the hospital before going home. A full-term pregnancy is considered to be 40 weeks long, though babies are not usually considered premature unless they are born earlier than 37 weeks. In the United States, about one of every eight babies is born prematurely. They may experience growth and development delays till age 2 or 3.

A mother plays with her baby. Study finds the more parents spoke, the better the babies were at both understanding and communicating. (ERIK DE CASTRO/REUTERS)

CAVEATS The study involved a small number of babies and did not include those with serious medical issues.

FIND THIS STUDY Feb. 10 online issue of Pediatrics.

LEARN MORE ABOUT language development in children at Learn about premature babies at (search for “preemie”).

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.