Out of the myriad of disabilities that people live with every day, hearing loss may be seen as a less significant problem. However, it can be detrimental to a child’s development if it is not recognized early on. Recognizing hearing loss in a child may seem an easy enough task, but hearing loss is often misdiagnosed, no matter the age of the child.
The first years of life – especially the first two years – are crucial developmental and formative years for children. This is when the brain develops and neurons make new connections at a faster rate than any other time, and it is during this time their personality begins to develop.
The ability to recognize voices and process words and sounds is so important in the beginning. Imagine how much a baby would miss if he or she did not have one of these senses – particularly hearing – during this time. This is why every newborn in Alabama and at least 38 other states require newborns to be screened for hearing before being discharged from the hospital.
There are several types of hearing loss: some are genetic, some are caused by infections during pregnancy or early in the life of the child, and some can occur from something as simple as repetitive ear infections. Because hearing is so important to the development, it is important to request a hearing screen at any age if you have any reason to think there might be a problem.
Some signs of hearing loss (even mild) vary depending on the age. If your baby doesn’t startle or turn to sounds by three or four months of age, that could be a red flag. If your infant is not babbling (saying “mama” or “dada”) by twelve or fifteen months, you should let your pediatrician know. As your child gets older, if he or she seems to be inattentive, distracted, seems to ignore you at times (sometimes you can have hearing loss only in one ear) or needs music, etc. to be louder than you would expect, these could be subtle signs of a hearing problem as well.
There are many options for treatment, depending on the cause of hearing loss. Problems caused by ear infections typically call for treatment with tympanostomy tubes. Hearing aids or cochlear implants may be required if the hearing loss is severe, progressive, or genetic. If the problems occur during the time where they are learning to communicate, extensive speech therapy could be required to catch them up developmentally, so again, identifying the problem as early in life as possible is crucial.
Often times, a hearing problem can be difficult to identify since it relies heavily on the child’s development and symptoms observed outside of a clinician’s office. Sometimes it can be mistaken for just an irritable or quiet infant, a tantrum-throwing toddler, or an inattentive adolescent that just has “selective hearing.” However, if there is any speech delay identified or any parental concern, a hearing screen is easy to perform and should be done to see if further investigation is needed. As parents, you are the first line of defense. You will likely be the first one to notice any problems, so if you start to notice problems that could be related to hearing, be careful, be attentive, and, above all else, be patient.