Parents of NICU preemies: those fragile and precious little darlings want to hear from you. They need to hear from you. A new study indicates the more words per hour a preemie hears in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the sooner s/he catches up on language and cognitive skills that might otherwise be delayed by its early birth.

A full-term pregnancy lasts 40 weeks, with some wiggle room, and a baby is considered preterm if born before the 37th week. One in eight babies born in the United States is born premature.

Premature baby in incubatorPreterm babies face growth and developmental challenges that are most evident during the first two or three years of life. They often experience delays in language skills that include difficulty understanding what’s being said to them (receptive skills) and communicating their desires to others (expressive skills).

At the Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, Melinda Caskey, MD, thought preemies might pick up on language skills sooner or more effectively when they are exposed to the words of adults from the earliest moment possible — in the NICU. She put her theory to the test in a study involving 36 preemies.

Each of the 36 babies was born prematurely, an average of 13 weeks early, but was otherwise medically stable. Each weighed approximately two pounds at birth and each was in the hospital’s NICU.

Caskey tucked a digital recording device in the wraps of each baby so it could produce a continuous 16-hour recording of what the babies were hearing during each recording session. Sessions were taken when each child was at the 32nd and 36th postmenstrual age.

Postmenstrual age is the length of time between the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period and the day in question (e.g. week 32 of postmenstrual age indicates there has been 32 weeks since the onset of the child’s mother’s last period).

Caskey then counted the recordings’ words per hour to determine how many words per hour each baby heard.

When each baby reached the corrected ages of 7 and 18 months, its cognitive and language skills were tested using the third edition of the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development (Bayley-III). The Bayley-III is widely used to measure the developmental age of children in the US for the first few years of life. Corrected age (also, adjusted age) represents the age the child would be if the pregnancy had gone to full term.

The preemies who were exposed to the highest number of words per hour during the NICU recording sessions scored highest on the Bayley-III assessments at both corrected ages. Parental education levels had no effect on the findings. Caskey’s study indicates the value of language intervention therapies starting immediately after birth.

Source: Caskey, Melinda, MD, et al. “Adult Talk in the NICU With Preterm Infants and Developmental Outcomes.” Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Feb 10, 2014. Web. Feb 13, 2014.