A baby — preemie or otherwise — wouldn’t be a baby if she wasn’t in the business of babbling before saying real words. A toddler born prematurely — defined as entering the world prior to the 37th week of pregnancy — may lag slightly behind a tot born full-term — between 38 and 42 weeks — when it comes to speech development. Generally speaking, however, both early and on-time tots have plenty to say by age 2.
A baby is born prematurely in 8 to 10 percent of all U.S. pregnancies, notes HealthyChildren.org, a website published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. A preemie actually has two birthdays; one is the original expected due date and the other is the day your tot was actually born.
A premature baby needs as long as a year or two to catch up to her peers. Most preemies are developmentally equal to their full-term peers by age 2 to 2 1/2.
Laage Devnguelopment in Toddler Preemies
A toddler born prematurely typically speaks in two- to three-word sentences by age 2 to 2 1/2. She probably has a vocabulary of 20 words or more that include the pronouns “I,” “she” and “he.” Speaking clearly enough to be understood — at least more times than not — should be mastered between age 2 1/2 and 3.
Speaking more fluently by combining sentences with words like “but,” “or” and “and” also occur around this age. For example, a preemie toddler may say “I want the teddy bear, but I don’t want the blanket.” She also knows what you mean when you use prepositions like “beside,” “or,” “under” and “in.”
In comparison, a 2 year old born full-term can say about 50 words, according to MayoClinic.com. As in the case of a preemie, a toddler born after 37 weeks gestation typically speaks in two- or three-word sentences.
Speech therapy may be in order for some premature tots. At least one expert says the most effective approach to improving speech development in preemie toddlers is to spot the problem early and deal with it right away.
“Speech language pathologists will often evaluate the preterm child based on his adjusted age (counting from his birth date) until age 2,” according to Diane Paul, PhD, the director of clinical issues in speech language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
A large long-term study of infants born extremely early — defined as 25 weeks or less — examined the children at age 2 1/2. Researchers found half were free of disabilities, including speech difficulties, 25 percent had some degree of disability and the remaining 25 percent were severely disabled.
Among extremely preterm children, cognitive and neurologic impairment was common by school age. Neurological developmental delays can affect speech and language, among other advances. The research was published in January, 2005, in the New England Journal of Medicine.