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Words Count! The Neuroprotective Power of Language Nutrition for the Hospitalized Neonate


“The single strongest predictor of a child’s academic success is not socioeconomic status, level of parental education, race or ethnicity, but rather the quality and quantity of words spoken to the baby in the first three years of life.” (http://www.talkwithmebaby.org/)

Those were the words that grabbed my attention when I first learned about the concept of language nutrition a few years ago. Since that time, I’ve been on a mission to teach other NICU nurses, physicians, therapists and parents about it.




Language Nutrition is language exposure, or language rich interactions beginning even before birth. In other words, just as food nourishes the body, words nourish the developing brain.

Image Source: http://www.talkwithmebaby.org/tags/why_it_matters

Brain growth is measured in the number of cells, or neurons, produced, and the connections, or synapses, formed between those cells.  Synapse formation is experience dependent. That is, the connections formed in that fragile developing brain of the hospitalized neonate are based on the experiences he or she has each day.

One of the very interesting things about neonatal brain development is that the level of connectivity actually far exceeds that of the adult brain. This means that those pathways that are used frequently will strengthen, and those that are not used will wither away and atrophy.


((Image source pending — TIME Magazine))

Image Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn.2016.111



Nurses are in a unique position to positively impact the sensory experiences of hospitalized neonates through unit-based language nutrition programs, as well as focused parent education on the importance of language rich interactions with their child even before birth.  

Studies have shown that the developing fetus shows auditory reactivity as early as 19 weeks gestation, with consistent responsiveness by 25 weeks gestation.  In the case of the premature neonate, studies have shown benefit of exposure to meaningful auditory experiences as early as 28 weeks corrected gestational age (CGA), with the most robust data supporting beginning a focused language nutrition program at 32 weeks CGA.




Because we care for neonates, this means that we are taking care of tiny humans during a period when they will experience the most rapid period of brain development of their entire life.   Did you know that the brain grows to 80% of the adult size during the first 18 months of life alone??

I’d like to invite you to think about your NICU and your daily routine (or a NICU you recently visited):

  • Are you offering sensory experiences that will positively impact the developmental trajectory of the babies in our care?
  • Are you managing the levels of noxious noise so that meaningful language can reach the infant? Especially the parent’s and family’s voice?
  • Are we encouraging parents to talk and sing to their baby? To have conversations at the bedside or during skin-to-skin sessions, just like they would if the baby was still inside them?
  • Are you aware of how many hours of silence our sick babies in isolation or babies in private rooms are exposed to each day?  This is really important to track and be aware of, especially if a baby’s parents can not visit regularly.


If you haven’t see a recent study on the isolation and lack of language exposure that can happen in private-rooms and the impact on language outcomes at two-years. CLICK HERE to read more.

What are ways that you and your NICU could begin to nourish the brain through more language exposure each day?



Join our exciting new upcoming webinar on July 31st and 8:00am PST. We will be discussing how to implement a language nutrition program in your unit. Click below to register!


To learn more about language nutrition, early brain development, and some of the amazing facts that I shared in this blog visit, www.talkwithmebaby.org.

Blog written by Sarah Bakke


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