Having experienced the NICU in a very personal way about a year ago, I was excited to read about a new study published online February 19 in Pediatrics. We were blessed with twin grand babies, born several weeks premature and visited them in the NICU where they stayed for several weeks. It was an unbelievable atmosphere with very able professionals tending to so many tiny babies and parents holding, feeding and talking to their little ones.
Researchers at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island looked at the amount of words spoken to premature babies and how it impacted their language skills at the corrected ages of 7 and 18 months. 36 medically stable premature babies, on average born 13 weeks early and weighing about two pounds at birth were in the NICU where their environment was recorded, so researchers could count the number of words that had been spoken to them by their parents, child vocalizations and “conversation turns” meaning mother’s words or child’s vocalizations within 5 seconds.
As the number of words spoken to the child by his parents increased, so did the babies’ scores, with those exposed to the most parental talk, having the most developed language skills. The mother’s education level was not a factor in the findings.
“The adult word count to which infants are exposed in the NICU at 32 and 36 weeks predicted their language and cognitive scores at 18 months, according to study results….Every increase by 100 adult words per hour during the 32-week recording was associated with a two-point increase in the language score at 18 months.” (ASHA Leader).
Not only does this show the powerful impact parents can have on their premature infant’s language development during their stay in the NICU, I think it also speaks to the need to get this information out to parents when they are in this new, and might I say intense situation, with a premature infant. I know from watching new moms in the NICU, they might not be able to nurse their babies right away, dress them in their own clothes, visit whenever they want or even hold their babies right away, but they CAN talk to them and have a very positive impact on their language development.