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2011 research finding

Attention problems and language ability in preterm children

Early attention problems could be an important marker for later language abilities in children born prematurely. It seems that attention problems are stronger predictors of language ability the earlier the child is born. Further research is needed to confirm this finding, but a better understanding of how the association between attention problems and language abilities develop over time could contribute to early diagnosis of language difficulties in premature children in the future.

The study aimed to investigate the association between attention problems and language development from 18 to 36 months in premature children with low birth weight. Previous studies have found that attention regulation is a particularly problematic area for premature children. Thus, it was expected that attention problems at 18 months would be an important marker for language development between 18 and 36 months.

Data from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa)

The study used data from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa) and includes 1288 children born before 38 weeks of gestation and weighing less than 2500g. When the children were 18 and 36 months, the mothers reported attention problems and language abilities. They answered a total of nine questions about language abilities (e.g. does your child use sentences made up of three or four words?) and eight questions about attention problems ( e.g. my child cannot concentrate, cannot pay attention for long).

Important to assess attention in premature children

Attention problems at 18 months predicted changes in language ability from 18 to 36 months better than language ability predicted changes in attention problems across the same ages.

These results imply that attention problems may be a precursor to language abilities in premature children. Thus, assessing attention problems early in life might be useful in the early diagnosis of language difficulties.

Additionally, the study included preliminary analysis of very premature infants (born before 33 weeks of gestation). The results showed that attention problems at 18 months were increasingly important in predicting trajectories of language development between 18 and 36 months, the earlier a child is born. These results have to be interpreted with caution given the relatively low number of very preterm children in MoBa and further comparisons need to be made with samples of full-term children.

Early developmental pathways

Premature children are known to have a higher prevalence of persistent deficits in cognitive ability. Language and attention problems are among these deficits, although the nature of the relation between them is not well studied. This study supports previous findings pointing to a special role of attention deficits in children born preterm, and further illuminates early pathways relevant to the development of attention and language.


Ribeiro et al. (2011) Attention problems and language development in preterm low-birth-weight children: Cross-lagged relations from 18 to 36 months. BMC Pediatrics, 11:59