When Will Your Preemie Learn to Talk?

Mother and son talking

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Learning to talk is a complex milestone that's affected by many factors. Even full-term babies learn to talk at different ages. The range of what's "normal" or "expected" is very broad. In general, parents can expect preemies to learn to talk according to normal developmental guidelines for their corrected age, or the age they would be if born at term:

  • By 6 to 9 Months: By the time a preemie reaches 9 months corrected age, he should respond to his name and turn toward a new sound. He should also have begun babbling, making sounds such as "bababababa" that combine consonants and vowels.
  • By 10 to 12 Months: By 12 months corrected age, preemies should be able to call a parent by saying "mama" or "dada." They should also be able to carry out simple requests (like waving).
  • By 13 to 18 Months: By 18 months corrected age, preemies are really learning to talk. They should be able to say 4 to 10 words and should babble in long "sentences" that sound like a conversation.

When using charts of developmental milestones, remember that these charts are general guidelines meant to give parents an idea of when their babies will learn new skills. Whether they were born early or on time, babies will meet developmental milestones at a range of ages.

Why Might Some Preemies Learn to Talk Later?

Most preemies learn to talk within the normal time frame for their corrected ages. Some preemies learn to talk even earlier than expected, maybe because they are exposed to language earlier than term babies. Other preemies have health issues that might cause them to talk later than their peers. Preemies who need respiratory support for a long time or who have hearing loss are especially at risk. Your child may have delayed language skills if he:

When Should Parents Be Concerned?

Babies who show a language delay early in their infancy are at risk for language delays later in childhood. Parents who are worried that their baby may not be learning to talk on time should trust their instincts and talk with their pediatricians, especially if their baby has not begun babbling by 9 months corrected age.

If your baby seems to be having trouble hearing at any time, talk to your doctor about setting up an appointment with an audiologist. Learning to hear is critical to learning to talk.

How Parents Can Help Preemies Learn to Talk

Having a close relationship with a trusted pediatrician is one of the best ways parents can help their preemies to develop at their highest potential. Pediatricians are trained to know which babies and children may need additional support from speech, physical, and occupational therapy and can help parents find the right therapist.

Parents can also help their preemies learn to talk by talking and communicating with their children, even as young infants. Talk to your baby often, pointing to things as you talk about them. Respond to your baby's attempts at conversation by acknowledging when he points to something and by talking back when he begins to babble.

1 Source
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  1. Emory University, Emory Pediatrics, "Developmental Milestones"

By Cheryl Bird, RN, BSN
Cheryl Bird, RN, BSN, is a registered nurse in a tertiary level neonatal intensive care unit at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia.