This month, we have the opportunity to reflect on the almost 400,000 babies born preterm in the United States. Did you know premature birth can affect speech and language development? Infants born prematurely are at a much greater risk of experiencing speech and language difficulties in their toddler years, which may continue well into their school-age years.
As the mom of a preemie, I understand the concerns, fears and uncertainty associated with having a baby born preterm. Almost 15 years ago, my middle son was born suddenly and unexpectedly 7 weeks before he was due. We didn’t even have his name picked out yet when he arrived. Not only was it scary to have a baby in the NICU hooked up to all kinds of tubes and wires, but trying to recover from a c-section, spend time with him in the NICU and be there for my first son, to say the very least, it was a challenging time for us. As a mom, I was concerned about what this meant for his future. Will he have developmental delays, short and/or long term health problems or neurological deficits due to his early arrival? As a speech therapist, I wondered if he would have difficulty with his speech and language development as he got older.
Often times, as they get older, premature babies may have difficulty with:
Articulation (difficulty making certain sounds)
Understanding sentences and questions
Expressing themselves (using language to tell stories, express opinions)
Reading and spelling
Grammar and sentence structure
They are also at risk of having delays in motor skills and the development of cognition, which can impact language development. Despite this increased risk, many preemies catch up to their peers by the time they begin school. Some preterm babies catch up to their peers naturally, however others will continue to have persistent speech and language difficulties during their school years as well. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict how each child will develop, which is why it is very important for parents of preemies to involve a speech therapist early to ensure that their child is on the right path for speech and language development.
Early intervention, with the help of a speech-language pathologist, is critical as the brain develops and matures and forms new neural pathways, especially before age of three. If you are the parent of a preemie, reach out to your local early intervention facility or find a local private speech therapist as early as possible to get the best supports available in order to ensure an optimal speech and language learning environment for your developing child.
My son received speech therapy as a young child and thankfully only needed services for a couple of years. I know that by getting him the help he needed early on helped him tremendously. You would never know he was a preemie who spent the first 17 days of his life in the NICU. He is now an active, not so chatty, teenage boy who is almost six feet tall!