Kids who were born prematurely may lag behind their peers when it comes to more-advanced language skills, a new research review finds.
In an analysis of 17 past studies, researchers found that in general, preterm babies tend to have more difficulty with complex language skills as they grow older – at least up to age 12.
The findings, reported in the journal Paediatrics, do not mean that premature babies are doomed to long-term language problems. But, researchers say, these kids may have a tougher time than their peers do later on in school, when they start to face trickier language concepts – like reading or writing complex sentence structures.
"This study confirms what is observed in the real-life clinical setting: preterm children are at higher risk of language problems, and as the language task becomes more demanding, the proportion of children with significant impairment also increases," said Dr Thuy Mai Luu, a paediatrician at CHU Sainte-Justine and the University of Montreal in Canada.
Normal language skills at age 12
Luu was not involved in the current study, but researches preterm infants' development.
In some cases, Luu said in an email, preterm kids may have normal language skills at the age of two, when the demands are low.
"However, a few years later, when language functions required to succeed in school are more complex, this is the time when problems may appear and limit the child in scholastic or social activities," she explained.
That's the pattern that the new study found. In early childhood, there were smaller differences between preterm and full-term kids as far as simple language abilities, like basic vocabulary.
Gap widens in complex language skills
But between the ages of three and 12, the gap tended to widen when it came to complex language skills.
The findings come from what's called a meta-analysis, where researchers combine data from small studies to get bigger numbers and, hopefully, a more reliable result.
Inge L. van Noort-van der Spek and her colleagues at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, found 17 studies involving a total of 1,529 children born prematurely (before the 37th week of pregnancy) and 945 kids born full-term.
In general, there was a reliable difference between preemies and full-term kids in terms of simple and more complex language skills.
Preterm kids catch up
That does not mean that all kids born early will have significant language problems in school, however. Nor did the analysis separate extremely preterm kids from those born closer to their due date. But in general, it's known that the earlier a child is born, the greater the risk of developmental delays, Luu noted.
In her own research, she has found that preterm kids tend to "catch up" to their peers as far as basic language. And, she said, brain imaging research suggests that preemies can develop "compensatory" nerve connections related to simple language skills.
It's possible, Luu noted, that for complex language tasks, there is a limit to the brain's ability to compensate.
Screen preterm kids before they enter school
"The take-home message is to remain vigilant (about) language difficulties in the clinical setting," Luu said.
Even when preterm babies have normal language ability around the age of 18 to 24 months, she said, paediatricians should do a thorough screening for language problems before kids enter school.
In the "real world," it's not common for kids to have any further screening after they start school, according to Luu. But around second or third grade, when schoolwork becomes more complex, parents may start noticing their kids are having a tougher time.
(Amy Norton, Reuters Health, March 2012)
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