Language problems persist for premature babies

30 November 2012

Babies born premature have poorer language abilities when compared to their peers at seven years of age, a Murdoch Childrens Research Institute study has found. 

Researchers investigated language abilities in 198 children born very preterm (less than 32 weeks) and very low birth weight (less than 1500 grams) at seven years of age and compared their performance with 70 children who were born at term.  Researchers also looked for white matter abnormalities as they hypothesised those children born preterm would demonstrate impaired language function because of the presence of diffuse white matter abnormalities.

The study, which is published in Journal of Pediatrics, found the group of children born very premature performed significantly worse than the children born at term on all language areas assessed including spoken word awareness, semantics, grammar, discourse and pragmatics.

The study showed that white matter abnormality occurring during the neonatal period was a key predictive factor for four out of five language areas seven years later.  White matter abnormalities were associated with performance in phonological awareness, semantics, grammar, and discourse.

However, the results indicated that other factors associated with prematurity are also likely to influence language ability. Researchers said it's possible that environmental factors provide additional influence on language abilities; however, say further research is needed to understand the most significant determinants of cognitive skills.

Lead researcher, A/Professor Peter Anderson said the study highlights that families should closely monitor their child's language development. 

"Language development is a clinically important area of development concern in these children. Paying close attention to a premature babies' language development is essential for parents so that discrepancies from normal development can be discovered and addressed during early childhood."

Researchers from the Institute are now developing a new preventive intervention for premature babies, which they hope will enhance language development, along with other functional outcomes.