Most children with hearing loss are born to parents with normal hearing. That means the entire family may have a lot to learn about living with the condition.
You may find out your child has hearing loss when they're born, or might be diagnosed later in childhood. Either way, the most important thing to do is to get the right treatment as early as possible. If you understand more about the condition, you can get your child the help they need so they can learn, play, and keep up with other kids their age.
Here’s what you need to know.
The causes of hearing loss in children include:
Otitis media. This middle ear infection happens often in young children because the tubes that connect the middle ear to the nose, called Eustachian tubes, aren’t fully formed. Fluid builds up behind the eardrum and can get infected. Even if there’s no pain or infection, the fluid can affect hearing if it stays there, at least for a short time. In severe and long-lasting cases, otitis media can lead to permanent hearing loss.
Problems at birth. Some children are born with hearing problems. Most of the time, they’re tied to a child’s genes. Other times, it happens during pregnancy or from prenatal care. Hearing loss can also happen when a pregnant woman has a medical condition like diabetes or preeclampsia. A baby born prematurely is at higher risk, too.
Illness or injury. Young children can lose their hearing after they get some illnesses, including meningitis, encephalitis, measles, chickenpox, and the flu. Head injuries, very loud noises, and some medications can also cause hearing loss.
Unless your child was diagnosed with hearing loss at birth, you’ll probably be the first person to notice if they have trouble picking up on sounds. Some early signs of a problem include:
- No reaction to loud noises
- No response to your voice
- Your child makes simple sounds that taper off
A child with otitis media may also:
- Pull or rub an ear
- Be constantly cranky for no clear reason
- Stop paying attention
- Have little energy
- Not understand directions
- Often ask for the TV or radio to be louder
- Have a fever
- Have ear pain
If you notice these symptoms in your child, talk with their doctor.
How It's Diagnosed
Many hospitals test newborns’ hearing before they go home. Others only test infants who are at risk for hearing problems, such as those with deafness in their families. Many states have laws that require hearing tests for all infants. Check with your pediatrician or hospital to find out if your child has had a test. If not, ask how you can get one.
Early hearing loss can affect how a child learns language, which experts believe starts during the first months of life. If problems get diagnosed and treated quickly, babies and children can avoid trouble with language.
The right treatment for a child who can’t hear depends on what caused the problem and how much they can’t hear.
The most common treatments for otitis media include:
Watchful waiting. The condition often goes away on its own, so sometimes the first treatment is simply to watch for changes.
Medications. Your pediatrician may prescribe antibiotics or other meds for your child.
Ear tubes. If the problem doesn’t go away and seems to be affecting your child's hearing, your pediatrician may suggest your child get these tubes. These allow fluid to drain, and they can help prevent infections. If your pediatrician thinks your child needs them, they’ll refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor, also called an otolaryngologist. Your child will need minor surgery to get the ear tubes put in. In a hospital, they’ll get medicine so they'll be asleep during the operation, but should be able to go home when it’s over.
Other treatments for children with hearing loss include:
Hearing aids. Children can begin to use these as young as 1 month old. A hearing specialist will help make sure that your child gets the right device.
Implants. Many children and adults get cochlear implants, which are electronic devices that doctors put in the inner ear to help with hearing. They’re usually only for children with serious hearing problems after hearing aids haven’t helped.
Many other devices can help children with hearing loss. Ask a hearing specialist about what might be right for your child.
How to Get Support
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says children with hearing loss are entitled to help and education from the time they're born through their school years. Early help can teach your child how to communicate through speech, or signing, or a mix of both.
If your child needs ongoing help in school, work with their administrators to see how they can get it. As they grow, it's likely that their education program will need to adjust. Stay in touch with their teachers and other school professionals to figure out what they need.
With early treatment and support, children with hearing loss are more likely to learn to communicate and to participate in school and other activities.
Here are a few things you can do to help your child -- and yourself:
Get educated. Web sites, as well as government and nonprofit groups, can help you keep up with the latest research.
Communicate. Connect with support groups and online chat communities for parents of children with hearing loss. They know what you’re going through and can give you a lot of information, advice, and understanding.
Stay in touch with your child. Some children with hearing loss feel isolated from other kids their age. But early treatment and hearing aids can reduce the chances they’ll feel alone.
Take care of yourself and your other relationships. Getting help for children can take a lot of time. But don't forget about your own well-being or other people in your life. Make time for your spouse or partner, stay in touch with friends, and do things you enjoy.