Healthy Kids : Talk to Your Babies, Especially Premature Ones

The cognitive development of prematurely-born infants is positively impacted by increased exposure to adult voices -- new research suggests.

Medical researchers found that preterm babies exposed to larger amounts of adult conversation were more likely to score higher on cognitive and language tests at seven and 18 months. Babies exposed to more of their mothers' voices -- as opposed to the just the chatter of hospital employees and cooing of caretakers -- were even more likely to exhibit strong signs of development.

The research was carried out by a team of doctors at the Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island and The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Their findings were published this month in the journal Pediatrics.

"Our study demonstrates the powerful impact of parents visiting and talking to their infants in the NICU on their developmental outcomes," said Dr. Betty Vohr, who led the study. "Historically, very premature infants are at increased risk of language delay. The study now identifies an easy to implement and cost effective intervention – come talk and sing to your baby – to improve outcomes."

Of course, a full-term baby, growing inside a mother's stomach, is likely to experience all the vocalizations and conversations of an expecting mother's daily life. But an infant born prematurely can be isolated from that daily dose of language in a hospital incubator.

No infants were favored over others in this experiment -- in that no babies were purposefully exposed to more talking than others. Researchers simply measured the amount of daily adult talking that premature babies naturally experienced during their time at the NICU unit.

Using a Language Environment Analysis (LENA) microprocessor, researchers were able to tally adult word count, child vocalizations and interactions between mothers and infants.

"The follow-up of these infants has revealed that the adult word count to which infants are exposed in the NICU at 32 and 36 weeks predicts their language and cognitive scores at 18 months," said Vohr. "Every increase by 100 adult words per hour during the 32 week LENA recording was associated with a two point increase in the language score at 18 months."

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