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New Study Shows Premature Babies Need "Adult Talk"

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A new study suggests that premature babies have better language skills by 18 months of age if they're exposed to more adult talk very early in life.

For decades it's been known that older children suffer speech and language delays when their exposure to adult speech is limited. Researchers decided to see if the same thing applied to preterm infants, who often have speech delays as toddlers.

In the study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, lead author Dr. Betty Vohr of Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I., explains that infants in neonatal intensive care units are regularly exposed to the sounds of monitors and machines but not direct adult speech.

She and her team studied 36 preterm babies weighing just over 2 pounds in the NICU at Women & Infants Hospital. Researchers recorded the sounds in the NICU for 16 hours by outfitting the babies with vests that recorded and analyzed conversations and nearby background noises. Recordings were made when the babies were 32 weeks "postmenstrual age," which corresponds to 32 weeks of pregnancy, and again at 36 weeks. When the babies were tested at 7 and 18 months after birth, researchers found that babies exposed to just 100 additional words per hour in early life demonstrated a measurable increase in language skills.

According to a press release from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the publisher of the journal Pediatrics, "Every increase by 100 adult words per hour during the recording 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."

"Parents should be encouraged to talk to their preterm babies while in the NICU to avoid risk of language delay," the AAP recommends.

Adding an additional 100 words an hour is actually pretty simple. Singing songs, repeating nursery rhymes, describing how your day was, discussing plans for the future, and even talking about the weather can easily get that number up. Family and friends can make soothing recordings for the baby to listen to in the NICU.

Dr. Vohr said earlier research also found that premature babies respond audibly to their mothers' presence. "Our earlier study identified that extremely premature infants vocalize (make sounds) 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," she said.

She reiterated that researchers have long known that premature babies need close contact to thrive.

"Our study demonstrates the powerful impact of parents visiting and talking to their infants in the NICU on their developmental outcomes," Vohr says.

Obviously, parents can have a difficult time spending all of their time at the NICU, especially if they have older children to care for. But with the discovery many years ago of the benefits of "kangaroo care" (skin-to-skin contact with newborns) and now this study, parents of preemies should make every effort to be present as much as possible.

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