Developmental milestones in preemies

Developmental milestones in preemies

A preemie’s development – her physical, intellectual, communication and social abilities - may be much different from a full-term child’s. Understanding these developmental differences could address your concerns and help you better support your child. This article is part of the DreamBig, an education series by Abbott, which aims to spread awareness on prematurity and help turn small starts into big futures.

Developmental Milestones in Preemies, Premature babies

Preemies are just like full-term babies – shower them with plenty of love so they can thrive in the warmth of your family.

When your child becomes interested in her surroundings, you will eagerly anticipate developmental milestones, such as sitting up, crawling, walking and talking. Every parent celebrates these achievements, even more so parents of preemies. Hence the higher level of anticipation.

Mums of preemies should keep in mind that preemies’ development is a process, not a race for developmental goals.

In this article, we explain preemies’ development in various aspects including motor, cognitive, communication and social development.

Physical (Motor) Development in Preemies

A full-term baby spends the last few months of pregnancy in a flexed position, moving in a nicely cushioned environment. This is a position whereby his arms and legs are tucked into the chest or abdomen, head and neck bent towards the chest and the body rounded forward. By pushing against the fluid and uterus, the baby muscles eventually grow to become stronger and more responsive to position changes and movement.

On the contrary, a preemie will be in a loose and uncontrolled environment and therefore have relatively weaker muscle strength and decreased responsiveness. This makes it challenging for him to move against gravity and control his movements.

Mums, for motor development delays, it is important to intervene early. A physiotherapist or occupational therapist can assess your preemie through formal assessments, and administer intervention if necessary.

Cognitive Development in Preemies

Babies’ early learning comes from sensing – by processing what he gains through seeing, hearing, smelling tasting and touching. Thinking abilities develop as babies learns to imitate and problem-solve (find, sort and use information). The process of developing thinking skills requires trial and error and repetition.

For preemies with delayed learning skills, impairment to senses, or weak hand-eye coordination skills will require more repetition play and hence a longer time to develop thinking skills.

That said, mums, you should also remember that the human brain is a remarkable organ. During the early years of a child’s life, the brain is able to reorganize connections and even rebuild damaged connections, leading to leaps in a child’s cognitive development.

As such, most healthy preemies can catch up to their full-term peers in intellectual abilities by two to three years of age.

Those with long-term medical problems, significant sensory difficulties, or disabilities may continue to have cognitive difficulties of varying degrees throughout life, “including development of signs and symptoms associated with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These signs and symptoms can have negative impact on their social, intellectual, and academic development“, as advised by Virginia  Frisk, Ph.D., C. Psych.

How different do preemies develop in terms of communication and social skills? Find out more about the developmental milestones of preemies on the next page.

Developmental Milestones in Preemies, Premature babies

Premature babies may develop slower than their full-term peers, but eventually catch up by around the age of 3.

Communication Development in Preemies

Full term infants begin communicating with their first cry and they go on to express themselves by cooing or squealing.

At around four months, babies will begin to babble. When they are around 9 months to 1 year of age, they begin to say words like “mama” and “dada”.

Preemies have a natural disadvantage in reaching these communication milestones. This could be further impaired by medical problems. Common types of communication delays include voice problems, stuttering, issues with comprehension, delay in sound production and language development.

A formal evaluation of your preemie’s speech and language development is usually done between 18 to 24 months.

All these can affect a preemies’ social and academic performance. Early intervention via your paediatrician or a speech language therapist can help improve his communication skills.

Social Development in Preemies

Children who are born prematurely are often described as “hyper” by their parents. Many describe their child to be more sensitive children who have intense personalities.

Some may describe them as strong willed and have a tendency to overreact. Once upset, these children often have difficulties calming down. These behaviours often last into early childhood but may improve as he matures.

Parenting during this period can be tough but do not despair. Instead support and guide your child. Be patient and encouraging as you teach your child the appropriate behaviours.

With an “adjusted age,” the range of “typical” shifts. For example, while most full-term babies start babbling between 9 and 12 months, a baby born two months prematurely can be expected to do this between 11 and 13 months.

Just like full-term babies, development milestone guides are general and every baby develops at his or her own pace. There’s no serious cause for concern unless your paediatrician says otherwise.

Developmental Milestones in Preemies, Premature babies

Enjoy your new parenthood with your baby.

Raising preemies has its unique challenges that are different from term infants. It is important to remember that each child is unique and will develop at their own pace in their own way. Factors such as health, personality, family’s culture and educational background can all influence a child’s development.

Through it all, never forget that a preemie, like any other baby, desires and needs tender loving care from parents and loved ones. The parent-and-child bond is stronger than you may think, and it is the love that can help your little baby grow stronger and bigger each day. Embrace a positive outlook and keep smiling – happy parents, happy baby!


Nearly 1 in 10 babies in Singapore is born premature. Support awareness by sharing this with other mums and mums-to-be. Continue to follow the next article of Abbott’s DreamBig series where we discover the importance of proper nutrition and how this can play an essential role in your baby’s brain and bone development, an important read for all mums-to-be and women who intend to conceive.

Developmental Milestones in Premature babies

About Abbott

Abbott is a global healthcare company devoted to improving life through the development of products and technologies that span the breadth of healthcare. With a portfolio of leading, science‐based offerings in diagnostics, medical devices, nutritionals and branded generic pharmaceuticals, Abbott serves people in more than 150 countries and employs approximately 73,000 people.

The material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace medical advice of a qualified healthcare professional.

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Written by

Cindy Gan

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