Are Premature Babies Talked to in the NICU Smarter?

nicu_sizedResearchers have found that premature babies who were exposed to more talking from adults in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) tended to score higher on developmental tests later in life, according to a recent study.

Dr. Betty Vohr from the Warren Albert Medical Center at Brown University is the study's senior author. Dr. Vohr and her team say this new research offers an easy-to-implement way for parents to aid their premature babies. She and her colleagues write in the journal Pediatrics that a baby still in the womb continues to be exposed to its mother's voice, but a child born prematurely is most often kept in the NCIU unit. (A baby born between 39 and 41 weeks of a pregnancy is considered full term.)

NCIU units have noise from monitors and machines, but very little talk, For their study, researchers recruited the families of 36 medically-stable babies born before 32 weeks and kept in the NCIU  at Women and Infants Hospital, Providence, Rhode Island in 2012-2013.These infants wore special study vests equipped with devices to record and analyze conversations and background noises nearby. The actual amount of talk the babies were exposed to ranged from 144 words to over 26,000 words.

Word tallies were then compared to the baby's Bayley-III scores, which measure development in motor, language and thinking skills at ages seven months and eighteen months. Researchers found that an increased amount of adult talk in the NCIU resulted in higher language and thinking scores on the test. The babies in the original study group are now between one and two years of age.

Previous research has proven that children born early are at increased risk for language problems. Dr. Vohr believes that it is important for parents to visit their newborns in the NCIU and support their development by providing a more verbal environment. Simply talking to their babies can make a difference in how the baby will develop language and thinking skills.

Dr. Vohr's research team is currently working on a larger similar study to confirm these results.