More than three million American children have hearing loss, and an estimated 1.3 million of them are under three years of age. Most children with hearing loss are diagnosed in a screening prior to their hospital discharge as a newborn. In others, parents and grandparents are usually the first to discover hearing loss in a baby because they spend the most time with them. If at any time you suspect your baby has hearing loss, discuss it with your doctor.

Causes of Hearing Loss in Children

Pediatric hearing loss can be temporary, caused by ear wax, middle ear fluid, or infections. Many children with temporary hearing loss can have their hearing restored through medical treatment or minor surgery.

However, some children have sensorineural hearing loss (sometimes called nerve deafness), which is permanent. Most of these children have some usable hearing, and children as young as three months old can be fitted with hearing aids.

Identification of Hearing Loss Early

Everyday in the United States, approximately 1 in 1,000 newborns (or 33 babies every day) is born profoundly deaf with another two to three out of 1,000 babies born with partial hearing loss, making hearing loss the number one birth defect in America. Many studies have shown that early diagnosis of hearing loss is crucial to the development of speech, language, cognitive, and psychosocial abilities. Treatment is most successful if hearing loss is identified early, preferably within the first month of life. Still, one in every four children born with serious hearing loss does not receive a diagnosis until age three or older.

Language Development

The most important time for a child to be exposed to and learn language is in the first three years of life. In fact, children begin learning speech and language in the first six months of life. Research suggests that those who have hearing impairment and get intervention have better language skills than those who don’t. The earlier you know about deafness or hearing loss, the sooner you can make sure your child benefits from strategies that will help him or her learn to communicate.

When to Screen Children

The first opportunity to test a child’s hearing is in the hospital shortly after birth. If your child’s hearing is not screened before leaving the hospital, it is recommended that screening be done within the first month of life. If hearing loss is suspected, make sure an otolaryngologist orders tests for your baby’s hearing by three months of age. If hearing loss is confirmed, it’s important to consider the use of hearing devices and other communication options by six months of age.

In 2003, more than 85 percent of all newborns in the United States were screened for hearing loss. In fact, some 39 states have passed legislation requiring some form of hearing screening of newborns before they leave the hospital. This still leaves more than a million babies who are not screened for hearing loss before leaving the hospital.

Methods of Screening

Two tests are used to screen infants and newborns for hearing loss. They are:

  • Otoacoustic Emissions (OAE): Involves placement of a sponge earphone in the ear canal to measure whether the ear can respond properly to sound. In normal-hearing children, a measurable “echo” should be produced when sound is emitted through the earphone. If no echo is measured, it could indicate a hearing loss.
  • Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR): Earphones are placed on the ears and electrodes are placed on the head and ears. Sound is emitted through the earphones while the electrodes measure how your child’s brain responds to the sound.

Signs of Hearing Loss in Children

Hearing loss can also occur later in childhood, after a newborn leaves the hospital. In these cases, parents, grandparents, and other caregivers are often the first to notice that something may be wrong with a young child’s hearing. Even if your child’s hearing was tested as a newborn, you should continue to watch for signs of hearing loss including:

  • Not reacting in any way to unexpected loud noises
  • Not being awakened by loud noises
  • Not turning his/her head in the direction of your voice
  • Not being able to follow or understand directions
  • Poor language development
  • Speaking loudly or not using age-appropriate language skills

Treatment of Hearing Loss in Children

Hearing loss in children can be temporary or permanent. It is important to have hearing loss evaluated by a physician who can rule out medical problems that may be causing the hearing loss, such as otitis media (ear infection), excessive earwax, congenital malformations, or a genetic hearing loss. If it is determined that your child’s hearing loss is permanent, hearing aids may be recommended to amplify the sound reaching your child’s ear. Ear surgery may be able to restore or significantly improve hearing in some instances.

For those with certain types of profound hearing loss who do not benefit sufficiently from hearing aids, a cochlear implant may be considered. Unlike a hearing aid, a cochlear implant bypasses damaged parts of the auditory system and directly stimulates the hearing nerve and allows the child to hear louder and clearer sound.

You will need to decide whether or not your deaf child will communicate primarily with oral speech and/or sign language, and seek early intervention to prevent language delays. Research indicates that habilitation of hearing loss by age six months will prevent subsequent language delays. Other communication strategies such as auditory verbal therapy, lip reading, and cued speech may also be used in conjunction with a hearing aid or cochlear implant, or independently.