SLPs know that prematurity affects brain development, and is a risk factor for speech–language delay. But how great of a risk factor, exactly?
There are many studies of the cognitive and linguistic outcomes associated with prematurity. This study is unique, though, as a meta-analysis of available research on language outcomes in children ages 5–9 years old. This helps us to address the question of, “Do these preterm infants catch up?”
The findings show that preterm infants, as a group, do not tend to catch up to peers’ language by school-age. Specifically: “Children born VPT (very preterm) and who have VLBW (very low birth weight) do not catch up with their full-term peers at early school age in terms of their total language, receptive language, expressive language, phonological awareness, and grammar abilities...” Do note that there is quite a bit of variability within the study samples though, with many preterm children achieving normal language scores, but many not. And, not surprisingly, the more preterm or medically fragile the infant, the greater likelihood of neurodevelopmental differences.
So, early intervention SLPs—conversations, resources, and support must start in the NICU and continue through the early years (note: this article points you toward some papers on the effectiveness of EI services, as well). School-based SLPs—prematurity isn’t a “non-issue”, but still a relevant piece of the child’s case history all the way up through elementary years, and may shed light on current performance.
*Note—this article appears in both our Early Intervention and Pediatrics & School-Based SLPs’ research reviews, because we had a heck of a time trying to decide where to put it. Bonus! :)
Zimmerman, E. (2018). Do Infants Born Very Premature and Who Have Very Low Birth Weight Catch Up With Their Full Term Peers in Their Language Abilities by Early School Age? Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61, 53–65.