Friday, October 21, 2011

Newborn preemies more vocal when parents are near

Even tiny preemies hospitalized after birth can make baby sounds -- especially when their parents are talking to them, a small study suggests.

Very premature babies are known to be slower-than-average in picking up language skills. That can be due to various reasons, including health problems they may have as newborns.

It's not known whether the sounds preemies hear soon after birth, and their own ability to vocalize, are related to their later language development. But premature infants who spend their early days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) are in a much different sound environment than they would be if still in the womb, said Dr. Melinda Caskey, a pediatrician at Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, and the lead researcher on the new study.

In the womb, mom's voice is the most prominent sound, Caskey said. In the NICU, the beeps and whirs of medical equipment abound.

Until now, though, no studies had looked at how much language NICU preemies hear during their day.

Caskey's team found that in their hospital NICU, it was surprisingly little -- with monitor sounds, general noise and silence being much more common.

"It's very striking," Caskey told Reuters Health, "especially when you compare that with what the fetus hears."

What's more, the study found, when preemies were hearing adults talk -- their parents, in particular -- they were more vocal themselves. That usually meant making short vowel sounds.

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