Children with hearing loss often can’t explain that they’re not hearing like other kids hear. In fact, many children aren’t aware of their hearing loss.
Without realizing it, kids adapt to poor hearing. But they also often feel frustration and fatigue when they can’t meet the expectations of others.
It’s important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to be on the lookout for signs of hearing loss in kids. Untreated hearing loss can affect speech, learning, social growth, and more. Even minor impairments in hearing can make it difficult for children to hear or pronounce some words.
With early intervention, kids can get the tools and treatments they need to understand the world around them. Once doctors address their hearing loss, kids often rapidly improve in school and beyond.
What Are the Signs of Hearing Loss in Kids?
Because kids are so good at adapting to hearing loss, adults can miss the signs of hearing loss in kids. Adults may think a child is ignoring them. Or they may think a child has trouble understanding concepts or paying attention.
In some cases, what looks like a learning deficit or behavior problem may actually be a hearing issue.
Children with hearing loss may show the following signs:
- Delayed or unclear speech.
- Frustration, especially around communication.
- Failure to follow simple instructions.
- May hear some sounds well, such as a dog bark, but not other sounds, like someone saying their name.
- Turning up the television louder than usual.
- Frequently asking others to repeat themselves or saying “Huh?”
- Behavior problems at school.
- Difficulties in school, such as slipping grades.
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Why Does Hearing Loss Happen in Preschool and School-Age Kids?
Hospital staff test babies or refer them to a testing center after they’re born. But hearing loss can happen later in childhood too.
In some cases, children are born with hearing loss that gets worse over time. For this reason, a newborn screening test might not have picked up the hearing deficit. This type of hearing loss may be genetic, or it may result from exposure to infection in the womb.
One of the most common reasons for hearing loss in school-age kids is fluid in the ear. (Sometimes, even excessive ear wax can worsen a child’s hearing.)
Repeated ear infections can cause fluid to build up and stay behind the ear drum even after the infection. Allergies, tumors, or slight physical abnormalities in the ear can also lead to fluid build-up. This fluid reduces how sound waves move in the middle ear.
Children can also develop hearing loss after a childhood virus, like the flu or measles. A head injury can also lead to temporary or permanent hearing damage.
What Should I Do If I Think My Child Has Hearing Loss?
If you’re at all concerned about your child’s hearing, speak to your child’s doctor. They can check for ear infections or ear wax build-up, and also refer your child to a specialist for a full hearing test.
At a hearing center, an audiologist will perform tests to see if your child has hearing loss. Usually, your child will wear headphones for part of the test.
The hearing specialist will gauge your child’s responses to spoken instructions as well as various pitches. With their training and the precise equipment, you can rest assured that the test is safe. The audiologist will ask your child simple questions and may also play simple games with them.
The audiologist may also perform other tests. For example, they may put a probe in your child’s ear. With safe instruments and technology, the hearing expert can measure the movement of the eardrum and muscle inside the ear.
For children who cannot sit for a hearing test, due to a developmental disability, for example, other options are available. In one test, the audiologist places electrodes on the head and measures the brain’s response to sound. This test happens when a child is asleep.
In another test, a tiny probe records sound waves that the ear makes, to pick up any distortions. Neither test requires the child to describe what they hear.
What Are the Treatment Options for Hearing Loss in Kids?
There are many different treatments for hearing loss. Often, an ear, nose, and throat doctor will work closely with an audiologist to choose the best treatment. Treatments include:
- Watching and waiting (some hearing issues get better after an infection resolves, for example).
- Hearing technologies, like hearing aids or cochlear implants.
- Assistive technologies, like voice-to-text software.
Treatments for conductive hearing loss
In most cases, children diagnosed with hearing loss later in the preschool or school years have conductive hearing loss. This is due to problems with the tiny bone structures or fluid buildup in the middle ear.
Doctors can improve hearing in this case. A common treatment involves placing tubes in the ear to drain fluid.
Medications for infections or surgery to correct slight malformations in the inner ear structures can also improve conductive hearing loss. Hearing aids that amplify sound can also help this type of hearing loss, especially as a child waits for other treatments to work.
Treatments for sensorineural hearing loss
Sensorineural hearing loss is hearing loss due to problems with hearing nerves. This type of hearing loss is permanent, but technologies can help children process sound.
For example, hearing aids amplify certain frequencies that children have difficulty hearing. Cochlear implants stimulate the hearing nerve so that the brain can process sound. Brainstem implants bypass the hearing nerve and stimulate the pathways in the brain that process sound.
Other therapies for hearing loss
Children with hearing loss may also benefit from assisted technologies in the classroom. For example, with an FM system, a teacher wears a microphone.
The sound of the teacher’s voice transmits directly to a child, who wears a receiver. FM systems can also send sound to hearing aid devices.
Other technologies that help children with hearing loss learn include voice-to-text systems, portable sound amplifiers, and more.
If your child has difficulties with speech, a speech language pathologist can help with various techniques and exercises. For children with more serious hearing loss, many centers offer free access to sign language instruction for children and their families.
Bottom Line: Hearing Issues Need Prompt Attention
If you’re concerned about potential signs of hearing loss in your child, don’t delay. Seek an assessment at a hearing center right away. While hearing loss treatments may seem overwhelming, your providers will guide you each step of the way.
Specialized hearing centers will discuss the best treatment options, as well as any technologies that may help. They have technicians who will teach you how to use any technologies and also work directly with your child’s teachers.
In many cases, hearing issues in childhood improve significantly by adulthood. Early treatments ensure a hearing problem doesn’t get in the way of your child’s learning and interacting with others.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Hearing loss in children. Link
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Causes of hearing loss in children. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hearing loss treatment and intervention services. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is hearing loss in children? Link
Connect with UPMC
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.