When my little niece was born at 25 weeks’ gestation, she lived in a clear plastic incubator for the first several months out of the womb. Walled off in her own world, she grew and stabilized her health seemingly by the force of her own strong will, which still powers her as a 6-year-old. Unlike healthy full-term babies who can be snuggled, sung to and incorporated into the fold of a family’s daily life, preemies in the NICU may have less direct contact with their parents and other loved ones initially. But a recent study (subscription required) published in the journal Pediatrics has found that when adults spent more time talking to premature infants in the NICU, those babies score better on development tests at ages 7 and 18 months corrected age (actual age in weeks minus weeks premature).
Reuters Health article reports:
For the new study, the researchers recruited families of 36 babies that were medically stable but born before 32 weeks of pregnancy and kept in the NICU.
The babies in the study wore vests equipped with devices that record and analyze the conversations and background noises near the baby over 16 hours. The recordings were taken at 32 and 36 weeks of gestational age.
Overall, the babies were exposed to more talking at 36 weeks than at 32 weeks, but the actual amount of talk each baby was exposed to during the study periods varied from 144 words to over 26,000 words.
The study found an increased amount of parent talk in the NICU was linked to higher language and thinking scores when the babies were older. “I think we should pay attention to it, and try to understand it a little bit better and figure out what the causal mechanisms are,” Heidi Feldman, MD, PhD, a Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford physician who was not involved in the study, said of the findings.