Very preterm children: minding the language gap

Language is complex, and essential for academic achievement, vocational success and social interactions.

Children born very preterm (VP) are more likely to have language difficulties in early to middle childhood than those children born ‘on time’. Yet, up until now, few researchers have conducted longitudinal studies to investigate whether the language abilities of children born VP catch up or fall further behind their class peers with increasing age.

A recent study led by MICCN PhD student, Ms Thi-Nhu-Ngoc Nguyen, examined the developmental trajectory of language ability from 2 to 13 years of age in children born VP, compared with children born at full term. The study revealed that language functioning is consistently reduced in children born VP. No evidence of catch-up or decline was observed between 2 and 13 years. Furthermore, the study revealed that children born VP had poorer functioning across all components of language (verbal memory, grammar, semantics and pragmatic skills) at 13 years of age.

Language skills were assessed for 224 children born VP – born before 30 weeks’ gestation or with a birth weight less than 1,250 grams – and 77 children born at full term. Performance-based testing and parent report measures were given at two, five, seven and 13 years of age, and regression models were used to compare verbal memory, grammar, semantics and pragmatic skills between the VP and term groups at 13 years of age. Linear mixed effects regression models were used to assess language trajectories from 2 to 13 years of age.

“Children born VP continue to display language difficulties compared with term controls at 13 years of age, with no evidence of developmental ‘catch-up’”, Ms Nguyen said. “Given the functional implications associated with language deficits, early language-based interventions should be considered for children born VP.”

This study was conducted by the Victorian Infant Brain Studies (VIBeS) group, with colleagues from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The Royal Women’s Hospital. The full paper can be read on Pediatrics – the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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