Preterm Birth and Language

The effect of preterm birth on expressive language: birth-6

By: Carrie McElree

What is Preterm Birth?

  • Term: Birth at 37+ weeks gestation
  • Preterm: Birth before 37 weeks gestation
  • Very Preterm: Birth before 32 weeks gestation

Difficulties associated with preterm birth

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Feeding difficulties
  • Breathing problems
  • Developmental delays
    • expressive language
Baby Care Basics: Concerns for Premature Babies

Expressive Language from 6 through 30 Months

Nonverbal Communication of Preterms Compared to Full Terms

  • 6 mos: less re-engagement
  • 9 mos: less gaze following
  • 14 mos: difficulty initiating requests

Feeding Difficulties

  • More feeding difficulties seen at 18 mos in preterms compared to full terms
  • More feeding difficulty at 18 mos, greater degree of language impairment at 30 mos

Early Developmental Delays as Predictors

  • Nonverbal delays and feeding difficulties in early childhood years are important predictors for future language development of a child born preterm.

Expressive Language from 30 mos to 6 Years (School Age)

Lexicon and Grammar

  • At 30 mos, preterms have a greater risk of lexical and grammatical impairment than full terms
  • At 42 mos, the risk of lexical and grammatical development increases in preterms, but decreases in full terms
  • At 36 mos, preterm children use less words per sentence compared to full term children (average difference of about 1.6 words)

Expressive Language at School Age

  • Preterms have more grammatical and vocabulary errors and less understanding of phonological awareness
  • Leads to reading and writing difficulties
  • Note: The difference is not due to cognitive deficits in preterm children!

Why is this Information Important?

  • Greater understanding of areas of language that are of difficulty to preterms
  • Early identification= earlier intervention= better language outcome later in life (especially at school age)


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