Effect of congenital heart defects on language development in toddlers with Down syndrome

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Down syndrome (DS, OMIM #190685) is the most commonly identified genetic form of intellectual disability with congenital heart defect (CHD) occurring in 50% of cases. With advances in surgical techniques and an increasing lifespan, this has necessitated a greater understanding of the neurodevelopmental consequences of CHDs. Herein, we explore the impact of CHD on language development in children with DS.


Twenty-nine children with DS were observed systematically in parent–child interactions using the Communication Play Protocol to evaluate their language use; they also completed the Mullen Scales of Early Learning and MacArthur Communication Development Inventory. Mean ages were 31.2 months for children with DS and CHD (DS + CHD, n = 12) and 32.1 months for children with DS and a structurally normal heart (DS − CHD, n = 17).


Compared with the DS − CHD controls, the DS + CHD group revealed lower scores in multiple areas, including fine motor skills and expressive and receptive vocabulary. Whereas most differences were not statistically significant, the Communication Development Inventory word count and symbol-infused joint engagement differed significantly (P < 0.01) and marginally (P = 0.09) between groups.


Finding that CHDs may account for part of the variation in language delay allows us to consider the specific mechanisms underlying the impact of CHDs on language acquisition in children with DS. Conclusions from this first study on early language outcomes of children with DS + CHD may be useful for clinicians in providing developmental surveillance and early intervention programmes with specific emphasis on language therapy as part of long-term follow-up for children with DS + CHD.

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