Hearing loss in children
Hearing loss may be partial — a child cannot hear certain sounds — or it can be complete. It may be temporary or permanent, and may be caused by a wide range of possible factors. As hearing is important for language development, early detection and treatment of any hearing loss is important.
What are the types and causes of hearing loss?
Having a hearing loss (impairment) means that a child has lost some hearing in one or both ears.
There are many types and degrees of hearing loss, and they are described according to how much hearing has been lost and which part of the ear is affected. Loss is also described as mild, moderate, moderate to severe, severe or profound.
Loss is also explained as mild, moderate, moderate to severe, severe or profound. There are 2 main types of hearing impairment: 'conductive' and 'sensorineural'. Having both types is called a 'mixed loss'.
Conductive hearing loss occurs when something interferes with sound waves travelling through the outer and middle parts of the ear to the inner ear.
It can be caused by a wax blockage, middle ear infection (otitis media), a fluid build-up in the middle ear, or damage to the tiny bones in the middle ear. Conductive hearing loss may be either temporary or permanent.
Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by a problem in the innermost part of the ear or in the nerve that carries hearing, the ‘auditory nerve’. It can be caused by abnormal inner ear development, a physical injury to the inner ear, damage to the ear from diseases such as meningitis and rubella, or a tumour.
Sensorineural hearing losses are usually permanent. Sometimes the problem with the inner ear also causes problems with balance. Children with both hearing and balance problems may have delayed development of their motor skills.
What are the signs of hearing loss?
Things to look out for, as they can be signs of possible hearing loss are:
- loud noises do not startle your child by 4 months of age, or your child does not turn towards the source of a sound
- your child notices you only when they see you
- your child does not make sounds other than gargles and other vibrating noises that they can feel
- speech development is delayed
- your child seems to not hear when called or does not respond to their name or say simple words by 14 months
- your child can’t follow simple instructions by 24 months
- your child hears some sounds but not others
- your child has trouble holding their head steady, or is slow to sit up by themselves or walk
Diagnosis of hearing loss
In Australia, babies have their hearing tested in the first few weeks of life. Most newborns are tested before they leave hospital to help identify those who might require further hearing and middle ear function testing.
Babies with possible hearing loss are referred to a hearing specialist (audiologist), who will do more specialised testing to diagnose the type and extent of hearing loss. Understanding the cause helps determine the best treatment.
How is hearing loss treated?
Treatment of hearing loss depends on its cause and severity but can include:
- medication, such as antibiotics for ear infections
- repeated ear infections may sometimes be treated with grommets
- removal of a foreign object or wax
- surgery, such as inserting tubes to help fluid drain out of the ears
- hearing aids, or other technology to amplify sounds or assist hearing
- a cochlear implant for severe or profound hearing loss
- speech therapy
- assistance from a specialist teacher of the deaf to help make the most of any residual hearing
The earlier that hearing loss is identified and treated, the better for a child’s language, learning and overall development.
The most important thing for your child’s development is being able to communicate. A range of options are available, including spoken language, sign language or a combination of sign and spoken language to talk.
Children with hearing loss need regular hearing, ear and eye examinations. Younger children need to be tested very regularly because their ear canals are growing and changing shape. Regular eye exams are important because your child’s main way to learn and communicate is through sight.
You can read more about deafness in children in the Hearing Australia resource, Choices, or call them on 134 432.
Learn more about raising a deaf child.
You can call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.
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Last reviewed: April 2021