A little one doesn’t come when you call them, but they’re probably just distracted, right? You are constantly asking older kids to turn down the volume on the TV, iPad, or Nintendo Switch, but they are just really absorbed in their activity, right? Maybe—but these are also signs of hearing loss in kids.
Hearing loss in children is not uncommon. According to a 2020 review in the Journal of the American Medical Association, hearing loss affects nearly one out of five children in the U.S. by the age of 18. The earlier you catch on to a child’s hearing loss, the better chance you and their medical team have to correct reversible causes or begin using resources to improve their ability to communicate.
Why detecting hearing loss in kids is important
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Babies and small children with hearing loss will have trouble communicating and learning language. They are also at risk for other developmental delays. The earlier hearing loss is detected, the more successful interventions like speech therapy or learning sign language may be.
Along with delaying speech development, hearing loss in children can impact their cognitive function, academic performance, and social development. But even in cases of permanent hearing loss, using devices like hearing aids and cochlear implants very early can help children have better language development.
Signs of hearing loss in children
All babies born in the U.S. are screened for hearing loss soon after birth. If your baby doesn’t pass the screening test, more evaluation is recommended. Babies with hearing loss should begin Early Intervention services by 6 months to help them—and you—learn to communicate effectively.
Older children are also tested at regular pediatrician visits, and in some cases at school. If you’ve noticed the following signs of hearing loss in your child, you may want to have them further evaluated.
In babies and toddlers:
- No babbling
- Doesn’t react to parent’s voice by 3 months
- Doesn’t turn in the direction of sound by 6 months
- Isn’t startled by loud sounds
- Doesn’t understand simple phrases by 12 months (like “clap hands” or “wave bye-bye”)
- Doesn’t imitate sounds or speak a few words by 12 months
- Doesn’t respond when their name is called
- Doesn’t pay attention
- Doesn’t speak about 50 words or put together two-word phrases by 2 years old
For older children:
- Increased volume on TV, devices, or headphones
- Difficulty in school
- Trouble understanding conversation in a noisy environment
- Trouble hearing high-pitched sounds
- Ringing in ears
Common causes of hearing loss in kids
Hearing loss may be conductive (sounds aren’t transmitted properly through the external and middle ear), sensorineural (a problem in the inner ear or the nerves and pathways connecting it to the brain), or mixed (a combo of conductive and sensorineural).
When a baby is born with hearing loss, it is usually caused by a genetic condition or a congenital infection with toxoplasmosis, rubella, cytomegalovirus (CMV), or herpes.
A common cause of conductive hearing loss in small children is having fluid trapped behind the eardrum (otitis media with effusion). This type of hearing loss is often temporary, but may still require treatment with medication or surgery. Other causes of hearing loss include head trauma, noise trauma, anatomic differences, and some medications.
When to see a specialist
If you notice the signs of hearing loss listed above, talk to your child’s pediatrician about further evaluation. If hearing tests indicate hearing loss, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor or “ENT”).
Children with chronic ear infections are at risk for temporary hearing loss. An ENT can monitor their hearing and ear health and potentially perform a tympanostomy procedure to insert small tubes in the eardrum for drainage. Temporary hearing loss from trapped fluid may go away on its own, though.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology suggests asking your child’s doctor these questions about hearing loss:
- What can I do to make sure my child will have the best possible speech?
- Is my child’s hearing loss (or impairment) permanent or temporary?
- How can I prevent my child’s hearing from getting worse?
- How should I monitor my child’s hearing and speech?
- How important is it to read to my child?
- Do you recommend taking my child to see other specialists or therapists?
People between ages 3 and 22 who are diagnosed with hearing loss are eligible for special education services like speech therapy through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Children with hearing loss may also benefit from devices like hearing aids or cochlear implants.