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Father and Son

Language Development

Language Development in the NICU

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Language Development after Discharge

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Language Development and Premature Babies 

Language development can look different for every baby. This is especially true for premature babies. Parents and caregivers can help with language development in premature babies.


What is language, and why is it important?

Language is the communication system between humans. Sounds, words, and physical gestures, together, make up language. A simple word, such as "yes," or a physical gesture, such as a nod of the head, are both parts of language. Words working together to make sentences and more complex meanings are also language.


Language is important in forming happy relationships. Eventually, children need language for learning in school. Language helps us organize our thoughts and solve problems.


Language development and babies.

Babies in the womb hear their mother's voice. This is the beginning of their journey with language.

We know that babies who stay in the womb until term know their mother's voice as soon as they are born. They like familiar voices and stories. They can recognize different languages. Babies like to listen to their mother's language best.


Premature babies have a different journey with language than term babies. Instead of being in the womb hearing their mother's voice, premature babies may be in the NICU hearing different sounds and noises. They may also have health issues that affect their journey with language. Premature babies may develop language more slowly than other children born at term.


Connections in the brain are still forming at birth for both term and premature babies. These connections are important in language development. We can help these connections form in ways that help language development. There are special ways to do this for premature babies.


Helping language development in premature babies.

Research tells us that babies who hear language early, and hear it often, have better language development. The best thing to help language development in premature babies is to let them hear people speak. Parents are the best people to help a baby's language development.


How to know when to talk to your premature baby.

Babies tell us with their behaviour if they are ready to interact or need rest and quiet time. Paying attention to your baby's signs will help them get the most out of their time with you.

Babies tell us "I'm ready" by:

  • Making eye contact 

  • Looking alert and calm

  • Bringing their hands toward their mouth

  • Having regular breathing and good colour


Babies tell us "I need a break" by:

  • Opening their eyes very wide and staring

  • Looking and turning their head away

  • Crying, yawning, or gagging

  • Looking limp, tired, or stressed

  • Having changes in breathing or oxygen levels


Helping language development at different ages.

Very premature babies need lots of rest and quiet time. They do best with short periods of interaction. As babies mature, they will be ready for longer and more frequent periods of interaction.


Here are some tips for helping babies of different ages. Your baby's NICU team can also help guide you.

Less than 28 weeks corrected age

Have quiet conversations near your baby.

28-32 weeks corrected age

Talk, sing, or read to your baby for 20 minutes each day

33 weeks corrected age or more

Talk, read, or sing to your baby many times a day. Up to 90 minutes each day is best. You can divide this time throughout the day.

For all babies:

  • Speak in whatever language you feel most comfortable.

  • Talk and sing to your baby while doing baths, diaper changes, and getting them dressed.

  • Tell them the same story, or sing the same song over and over. Babies love and learn from repetition.

  • Make eye contact with your baby while you talk or sing. Eye contact is a form of communication for babies. It is calming for babies and can reduce crying.

  • Avoid screens while helping your baby with language. Screens will not help your baby learn language.


Kangaroo Care is an excellent time to do things that help your baby's language development. It combines babies' favourite things: human faces, listening to voices, touch, and movement. You can use a mirror so your baby can see your face and make eye contact during Kangaroo Care.




Caring for Kids (Canadian Pediatric Society). Read, speak, sing to your baby: How parents can promote literacy from birth.


HealthLink BC. Speech and Language Development.


My Health Alberta. Speech and language development.


Saskatchewan Health Authority. Speech and language development.


SickKids. Early language development in babies and toddlers.

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