One of the most frustrating things about a preterm delivery is that in the first several days after the birth, you’re dealing with wave after wave of roiling emotion, and you would do just about anything à la Hours to ensure the health and survival of your child, but you feel as though there’s really not much you can do beyond kangaroo care and pumping breast milk, and so you just sit there, alone with your thoughts.
However, in the last couple of years, more and more studies are beginning to demonstrate that there is something else you can do, and something crazy-easy, too: you can talk to your baby. It’s not exactly charging the battery of a ventilator with a hand crank, but it’s definitely something, and it can have both a near-term and long-term impact on the preterm infant’s development.
In a 2011 study published in Pediatrics, researchers found that preterm infants were not only able to make vocalizations as early as 32 weeks, but that these vocalizations actually increased the more parents spoke to their infants conversationally. The researchers concluded that their “findings highlight the powerful impact that parent talk has on the appearance and increment of vocalizations in preterm infants in the NICU.”
More recently, that same group of researchers published another study in Pediatrics (online February 10, 2014), in which they tested the hypothesis that parent talk in the NICU correlates with the cognitive and language development of preterm infants at 7 and 18 (adjusted) months. What they found was that an “increased amount of parent talk was associated with higher 7- and 18-month corrected age Bayley-III language and cognitive scores.” In other words, the more a parent talks their infant, the more improved the infant’s cognitive and verbal skills will be as they mature and develop.
Therefore, as the authors suggest, language intervention can begin as early as the NICU, and as senior author Dr. Betty Vohr says in an interview with Reuters, “This is certainly a remarkable, easy-to-implement and cost-effective intervention.”
Although stemming from a larger body of research which has found that simply talking to your children can dramatically impact their cognitive skills, the 2014 study is unique because of its focus on prematurity, which is why I would not be surprised if more papers are published in the coming years that focus on language intervention in a NICU setting.
(Even so, I can’t help but wonder about the ethical quandary in designing future studies: as in, if parent talk is largely thought to be highly beneficial to preterm infant development, how do you control for that without hindering the development of both participants and non-participants?)
Beyond that, it seems philosophically sound, doesn’t it, that by talking to you child, you’re helping them establish a modicum of control over their universe, simply by naming things and providing context–in other words, by giving them the gift of language. But is it the talking itself (the word-count) that helps children develop language skills, or is it, additionally, the engagement aspect of the exchange–of eye-contact, vocal inflection, and building a relationship with your child through shared experiences? At any rate, I suppose it doesn’t matter much one way or another, but the research thus far has been clear: engaging your pre-verbal preterm infant in conversation helps them develop language skills down the road.