Prematurity and Speech and Language Delays

If a child is born prematurely, he may not meet the milestones that his chronological age suggests.

By Laura Dyer

A complete medical history is vital when determining the cause of a language delay in a late bloomer; because various factors can prevent a child from reaching milestones on schedule. If a child is born prematurely, he may not meet the milestones that his chronological age suggests. In fact, it's normal for premature babies to need as much as a year or two to catch up to their peers. Speech-language pathologists will often evaluate the premature child based on his adjusted age (counting from his due date) until age two.

Language delays are sometimes seen in children who have illnesses that require long-term hospitalizations. These children frequently have neither the energy nor the opportunity to interact sufficiently with others. In some cases, they may have also undergone procedure that have limited their speech and/or language development, like a tracheotomy. Temperament, personality, and individual learning styles may also account for late-blooming language. Research also suggest that their may be a genetic reason for language delays.

If your child's speech is delayed, look for specific warning signs: Does he make eye contact, smile, play with toys, and interact with others? Does he understand what's being said to him? Does he regularly use gestures or noises to make his need and feeling known? Research on late talkers indicates that those who understand words and use eye gaze, gestures, and sounds are likely to catch up without intervention.

It's common to wait until a child is age 18 to 24 months before beginning a formal evaluation of his speech and language skills. New research indicates, however, that speech-language pathologist may be able to identify at-risk children earlier based on their preverbal behavior If your child seems to have trouble using eye gaze and gestures to get what he wants, if he doesn't babble or use other sounds, he may be at risk for a language delay Other red flags include your child's incomprehension of what you say or his inability to use objects. Even if your child does well with these tasks but still has trouble with sounds and words, he may need help.

Early intervention is important because a child's capacity for learning certain parts of language, which are regulated by brain maturation, is fixed by age three. The first three years are a peak period of development during which the child's brain has twice as many synapse (nerve connections) as an adult's. As a child's brain is stimulated, the synapses are strengthened; if a synapse is used repeatedly in the early years, it becomes permanent. If it's used rarely or not at all, it's unlikely to survive. These reasons are why children need consistent emotional, physical, cognitive, and language simulation starting from birth.

Laura Dyer is the author of Look Who's Talking.