Toddlers’ Language Development: The Gradual Effect of Gestational Age, Attention Capacities, and Maternal Sensitivity

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Language development in toddlerhood forms the foundation for speech and language comprehension throughout childhood. Children born moderately preterm are at increased risk for problems in receptive and expressive language functioning, and they may need specific support or interventions. To understand the underlying mechanisms of language development, an integrated model of gestational age, attention capacities, and maternal sensitivity was examined in relation to receptive and expressive language functioning in toddlerhood. Our sample included 221 children (gestational age between 32–41 + 6 weeks; 54.7% born moderately preterm; 51.6% boys; 69.1% highly educated mothers). At 18 months (corrected age), attention capacities were measured using an eye-tracking procedure and maternal sensitivity was observed during mother-child interaction. Language was assessed at 24 months (corrected age). Results showed children with a higher gestational age scored higher on receptive language. This association was direct, as well as indirect through the child’s alerting attention. Expressive language was related to maternal sensitivity. Gestational age and alerting attention capacities specifically were related to language comprehension, whereas maternal sensitivity was related to speech. As language comprehension and speech in toddlerhood show different associations with biological, child, contextual, and regulation factors, they should be viewed as separate constructs in research and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Article number7926
Number of pages18
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number21
Publication statusPublished - 29 Oct 2020


  • Receptive language
  • Expressive language
  • Moderate prematurity
  • Attention
  • Maternal sensitivity


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