Hearing is very important for your child's social and language development. So, early detection and treatment of hearing loss is important.
What is hearing loss?
Hearing loss can affect babies and children. Having hearing loss means that your child has lost some or all of their hearing in one or both ears. It can be:
- partial — when your child can't hear certain sounds
- complete — when your child can't hear any sounds
It may be temporary or permanent, and can be caused by different things.
Hearing loss in only one ear is called unilateral hearing loss. Complete hearing loss is called deafness.
Hearing loss is described by:
- how much hearing has been lost (mild, moderate, severe or profound)
- which part of the ear is affected
The different parts of the ear are the:
- outer ear (ear canal and pinna)
- middle ear (eardrum, ear bones, and eustachian tube)
- inner ear (cochlear and hearing nerve)
The outer and middle ear send soundwaves to the inner ear. In the inner ear, sounds are converted to messages that are sent to your brain through the auditory nerve (hearing nerve).
What are the causes of hearing loss?
There are 2 main types of hearing impairment:
- conductive hearing loss
- sensorineural hearing loss
Conductive and sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by different things. Having both types is called a 'mixed loss'.
Conductive hearing loss
Conductive hearing loss happens when there is a problem with the outer or middle parts of the ear. This prevents the soundwaves from reaching the inner ear properly.
Temporary conductive hearing loss can be caused by:
- wax blockage
- middle ear infection (otitis media)
- fluid build-up in your child's middle ear
Conductive hearing may be permanent if your child's ear bones or ear canal are:
- incorrectly formed
Sensorineural hearing loss
Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by a problem in the inner ear or the auditory nerve. It can be caused by:
- a problem with the development of the inner ear
- a physical injury to the head or inner ear
- damage to the ear from diseases such as meningitis and rubella
- excessive exposure to loud noise
Problems with the inner ear can be caused by:
- a genetic problem
- an infection during pregnancy
- problems due to a preterm birth
Sensorineural hearing losses are usually permanent.
What are the signs of hearing loss?
While all kids develop differently, your child may have hearing loss if they don't meet some of their milestones.
Milestones for your child include:
- reacting to loud noises by 4 months of age
- turning to where sounds are coming from and babbling by 7 months
- responding to their name by 9 months
- being able to speak simple words and follow simple instructions by 12 months
Other possible signs of hearing loss include:
- your child stops babbling
- your child does not respond when called
- their speech development is delayed
- your child hears some sounds but not others
- your child may appear inattentive
If you think your child might be experiencing hearing loss, you should visit your doctor.
How is hearing loss diagnosed?
In Australia, babies have their hearing tested in the first few weeks of life. Most newborns are tested before they leave hospital to see if they need further testing.
If you suspect your toddler or child has hearing loss, you can take them to your doctor. Your doctor may do some tests to help diagnose the type and extent of hearing loss.
These tests may include:
Babies and children with possible hearing loss can be referred to an audiologist (hearing specialist).
Understanding the cause of hearing loss will help determine the best treatment for your child.
How is hearing loss treated?
Treatment of hearing loss depends on its cause and severity.
If you child has an ear infection, they may be given medicines such as antibiotics. If your child has repeated ear infections, grommets may be recommended. Grommets are tubes that help the fluid drain out of the ears.
Other treatments may include:
- removal of a foreign object or wax
- speech therapy
- hearing aids, or other technology to amplify sounds or assist hearing
- a cochlear implant for severe or profound hearing loss
- assistance from a specialist teacher of the deaf to help make the most of any residual hearing
The most important thing for your child's development is being able to communicate. If your child has hearing loss, there are a range of options to help them communicate, including:
- spoken language
- sign language (Auslan)
- a combination of sign and spoken language
Children with hearing loss need to have their development monitored. This can include having regular:
- hearing tests
- eye examinations
- appointments with a paediatrician or maternal child health nurse
You can learn more about raising a deaf child.
Can hearing loss be prevented?
You can help prevent hearing loss by protecting your child's ears from infection and loud noises.
- teach your child good hygiene — this helps prevent infections
- help your child eat healthily
- make sure your child does not put anything in their ears
- make sure your child interacts with screens and music at a safe volume
Breastfeeding can also help fight infections.
Complications of hearing loss
Hearing loss can delay your child's language development.
Sometimes problems with the inner ear also cause problems with balance. Children with both hearing and balance problems may have delayed development of their motor skills.
Diagnosing hearing loss early reduces the risk of developmental delays.
Resources and support
Online support for parents of children who are hard of hearing can be found on the Aussie Deaf Kids website.
You can find more information on hearing loss and children on the:
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: May 2023