A new review article and a new research publication address the same issues, the first is a thoughtful review article: (Rand K, Lahav A. Impact of the NICU environment on language deprivation in preterm infants. Acta Paediatrica. 2014;103(3):243-8.), the authors propose that one of the reasons that preterm infants have language delays is the effect of the NICU environment. Language deprivation leads to language delay. This idea is eminently reasonable, and leads to potential interventions, which have no real cost but may well have benefits.
A new article which supports this viewpoint is : Caskey M, Stephens B, Tucker R, Vohr B. Adult Talk in the NICU With Preterm Infants and Developmental Outcomes. Pediatrics. 2014. I would be the first to say (and the authors also, Betty Vohr being one of the most brilliant neonatal scientists in history) that this is far from being definitive, but it is certainly very suggestive. Preterm infants in the NICU who were exposed to more language had better language development. There are multiple possible explanations for this, but one explanation, which is consistent with the review article above, is that language exposure affects the development of language.
The implications of these findings are important because they are inexpensive and potentially dramatic. I know from personal experience that when you visit a baby in the NICU, the idea that you should talk to your baby, a little scrap of humanity that obviously doesn’t have any idea what you are saying or what your voice might convey to them, such an idea seems bizarre.
So: talk to your baby in the NICU, and when you can’t be there, let your baby listen to a recording of your voice.
When parents come into the NICU to see their critically ill babies, encouraging them to talk to their infants, whenever they are present, and leaving a recording of their voice when they are not able to be present, might have major effects on their long term language abilities. It certainly isn’t a bad idea, and might well have very long term benefits.