Premature babies and speech development- what you need to know!

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Was your baby born prematurely? Did you know premature birth can affect speech and language development? We consulted the research to find out exactly what's known.

Infants born prematurely (<37 weeks) or of low birth rate (<2.5 grams) are at a much greater risk of experiencing language and speech difficulties in their toddler years. Yet research further shows that language and speech difficulties often continue to persist well into the school-age years. The areas affected are:

  • Understanding of sentences and questions

  • Expressing themselves (using language to tell stories, express opinions)

  • Reading and spelling

  • Sound production (difficulty making certain sounds)

  • Grammar and sentence structure

Premature babies are also additionally at risk of delays in motor skills, in the integration of primitive reflexes and development of cognition, all of which can impact language development.

The risk of persistent difficulties in these areas increases significantly for very pre-term (born <33 weeks into the mother’s pregnancy) or for infants of very low birth weight (<1.5 grams). Despite this increased risk, many pre-mature infants do catch up to their peers by the start of the school year! Unfortunately, there are no reliable predictors that can accurately determine which pre-mature toddlers with language difficulties will catch up to their peer group naturally and which will continue to have persistent language difficulties in their early school years. For this reason, parents of pre-term infants are encouraged to involve a Speech Language Pathologist to monitor their child’s development regularly to ensure that they are on the right trajectory and engage in early intervention strategies.

A Speech Therapist can help ensure that the child is provided with the best supports possible to ensure an optimal language learning environment. This will involve working directly with the child as well as doing parent training. Intervention for language delays in pre-term children is the same as intervention used for general language delays; the difference is often the over-sight and insufficient monitoring for children at risk. Early intervention with the help of an Speech Language Pathologist is critical as the brain develops and matures and forms new neural pathways, especially before age 3. Speech therapy would target cognitive, language, speech and social communication abilities. A Speech Therapist would additionally watch for broader symptoms that may require referrals to other specialized professionals.

The more you know, the more you'll be ready to support your premature baby. Ask a Speech Therapist if you have any questions.

Research consulted:

Barre, N., Morgan, A., Doyle, L. W., & Anderson, P. J. (2011). Language abilities in children who were very preterm and/or very low birth weight: a meta-analysis. The Journal of pediatrics, 158(5), 766-774.

Zimmerman, E. (2018). Do infants born very premature and who have very low birth weight catch up with their full term peers in their language abilities by early school age?. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61(1), 53-65.

Franken, M. C. J., & Weisglas-Kuperus, N. (2012). Language functions in preterm-born children: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 129(4), 745-754.

Zuccarini, M., Guarini, A., Savini, S., Iverson, J. M., Aureli, T., Alessandroni, R., ... & Sansavini, A. (2017). Object exploration in extremely preterm infants between 6 and 9 months and relation to cognitive and language development at 24 months. Research in developmental disabilities, 68, 140-152.

_________________________________________________________________________________Andalusia Speech Therapy has two Toronto speech therapy clinics and offers speech teletherapy to anywhere in the world. Contact us more for information.

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