Learning to communicate with premature babies

25 Jun 2019
Premature baby in NICU

Our Early Years Project Manager (and mum of twins) Alison shares what she learnt recently about the work of speech and language therapists in neonatal units.

At the Hot Topics in Neonatal Speech and Language Therapy conference last week, I was surprised – and fascinated – to learn about speech and language therapists working in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). It had never occurred to me that there would be a need for that, but the conference opened my eyes to the important work that they do.

Learning about their work also brought back personal memories for me – as the mum of twins, when I was pregnant there were a lot of concerns about them being born prematurely, as twins often are – and when they were born, one twin spent a short time in a neonatal unit.

At the conference I learnt that babies born very early (from 23 weeks or so), along with other pressing medical and health needs, do not yet have the brain and anatomical development to support hearing.

Typically, from around 26 weeks, hearing becomes more acute as the baby continues to develop in the womb. They become acclimatised to and react to their mother’s voice and external sounds such as the dog barking, dad’s motorbike, or their parents’ love of hip-hop music! Babies born prematurely miss out on this and can spend weeks or months in a neonatal unit where there are noisy machines, limited speech, and additional stresses with invasive but necessary procedures.

Speakers talked about supporting staff and parents to read and respond to premature babies’ ‘cues’ during care routines or tube feeding to minimise stress. They also encourage skin-to-skin contact (kangaroo care) as well as singing, chatting and sharing books.

All of these can help parents bond with the baby, comforting and calming them in this sterile environment and supporting the baby’s brain development. Increasing the number of words spoken by parents in the NICU improves future language skills, although some premature babies are more likely to continue to need speech and language therapy (and other specialist outpatient services) for many years.

Modern medical advances mean more very early-born babies survive than ever before, so this is a growing number of children. The longer term impact of premature birth is not routinely factored into pre-school, school admissions or assessment outcomes. As an early years teacher myself, I’m ashamed to admit that the question of whether a child was born prematurely is not one I routinely asked, but following this conference I absolutely will do in future.

I was incredibly fortunate - my twin boys arrived at 38 weeks. The second, smaller baby had a very short stay in the neonatal unit on oxygen and I was aware, over the first few months, he was not as physically robust as his brother, but he caught up quickly. The day after the conference we celebrated their 20th birthday! They are both doing fine and are at university, closely connected good friends, although as alike as chalk and cheese; they bring us so much joy.

The conference really brought home to me what might have been and the reality faced by other families with the long and difficult journey to bring their baby home, along with potential ongoing needs. It is a very challenging time for all the family.

At the National Literacy Trust, we’ve worked in neonatal units in our Hub areas to give out books and advice to the parents of premature babies. Reading to their babies in the NICU helps them to bond even and provides some solace during their time in hospital.

At the conference I was so impressed by the incredible support provided by so many dedicated professionals working within this fascinating field, and it further highlighted the vital importance of communication with children, pre-birth and beyond.