4 Powerful Ways To Help Language Development When Your Baby Is Born Prematurely

In my last post, you found out about language development in babies born prematurely. (If you haven’t read that post already, you can read it here.) In today’s post, I’m going to share with you 4 ways to significantly improve your premature baby’s language development- in any language. Babies who are born prematurely are at risk for delays in language. The quality of your interaction with your baby is a key factor in their language development and how you do it can have a significantly positive effect on their language development. One study from Montana looked at adult talk in the NICU and how it related to premature baby’s development. They found that the more adults talked and took turns interacting with their preterm infants in the NICU, the higher the babies’ language and cognitive scores were at 7 and 18 month corrected age.

Another study (from Chicago this time) found that when there was high mutual responsiveness between mothers and babies (born between 29 and 34 weeks gestation), language development was positively affected even at 6 weeks corrected age. What does this responsiveness look like though and how do you do it? It’s when you respond consistently to your baby’s behaviour, when you reinforce desired behaviours, & when you communicate & use words and actions that support social, emotional, and cognitive development. (Don’t worry- I’ll give you tips on how to do this below.)

Mutual responsiveness is made up of:

  • Mutual attentiong. the total amount of time you and your baby spend looking at each other face-to-face
  • Positive affect– how pleasurable does your interaction seem? You can recognise it in facial expressions such as smiles, grimaces, frowns, raising eyebrows, making an ‘o’ with your mouth & vocalising (laughing , crying, copying what your baby says)
  • Mutual turn taking – where you get repeated cycles of reciprocal behaviour either in imitation or play in which one partner elicits and the other responds e.g you talk and your child mouths or verbalises a sound in response
  • Maternal pausing is where you wait and stop all stimulating behaviours in order to provide time for your baby to respond
  • How clear are your baby’s cues? How clearly does your baby let you know that she’d like the stimulation to continue or stop
  • How sensitive are you to your baby’s cues and responsiveness? Can you read them right and adjust what you’re doing accordingly?


An Australian study from (2017) involving 12 month old babies living with adversity found that the more fluid, balanced, and connected the interactions between mothers and their premature babies were, the stronger the positive effect. Mothers’ verbal imitations of their babies’ noises and movements and the amount of vocalisations the babies made had a positive impact on the total number of words the children produced and the number of different words that they produced in a 5 minute period.


Here are 4 things to do to help your premature baby’s language development:


Look at and listen closely to your baby for cues like their level of alertness, and are they looking at you while you are looking at them, do they vocalise to you? When they vocalise, that’s their turn. You can then take a turn by imitating them. Do they respond when you talk to them? Do they touch you?


Verbal Imitation

This is where you repeat sounds and words that your baby makes. So if your baby or toddler says ca whilst holding a toy cat. You respond by saying It’s a cat! With lively intonation and interested facial expression.


  Responsive questions for toddlers

  • You ask a wh question like What happened? When? Who? Your question must be dependent on what your baby has just done e.g. your baby reaches into a box and you say What’s in there? (Check out this blog post on the danger of too many questions)
  • You ask a question that requires a Yes/No answer. Again the question must follow on from something that your baby has just done. So, your baby pushes a toy figure down a slide and you say Is the boy going down the slide?



You label a toy or object or action which your baby is either looking at or doing. Make sure that your label is the last word in what you say. So, your child picks up a toy bunny and you say e.g. It’s a bunny.


Two blocks to language development. Avoid these when you can!


Too many commands

Your baby mouths a toy and you say Don’t eat it!  Mouthing is a normal stage of development where babies explore their world using their hands and mouth. Giving lots of commands gets in the way of having conversations that help develop language.


Redirecting their attention

One of the best things you can to do to help your baby’s language development is to comment on what they are currently looking at. If you redirect their attention to something they’re not currently looking at then that isn’t helpful for language development. It’s really important to notice what they’re interested in and follow their lead by talking about their focus of interest. (There is some disagreement about this in the research though).


Here’s a video I made to help you become a tuned in communicator with your baby and another one on how to sing with your baby. And one final one on being a good language model for your child.


Reading together is also an effective way of building your relationship with your child while building their language. You can find 18 ways to use books to build language here.

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends!

Let’s get talking! MP

What I read so you don’t have to!

Caskey, Stephens, Tucjer, & Vohr. (2014) Adult talk in the NICU with preterm infants and developmental outcomes. Paediatrics 1(4): 579-584


Smith, Levickis, Eadie, Bretehrton, Conway, & Goldfield (2017). Concurrent associations between maternal behaviours and infant communication within a cohort of women and their infants experiencing adversity. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology  1-12.


White-Traut, R. & colleagues (2018). Relationship between mother-infant mutual dyadic responsiveness & premature infant development as measured by the Bayley III at 6 weeks corrected age. Early Human Development 121: 21-26.


White-Traut, R. & colleagues (2013). Mother-infant interaction improves with a developmental intervention for mother-preterm infant dyads. Infant Behaviours and Development 36: 694-706.



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