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Ear Infections and Language Development

When a child has fluid in the middle ear, the fluid reduces sound traveling through the middle ear. Sound may be muffled or not heard at all. Children with middle ear fluid will generally have a mild or moderate temporary hearing loss. (It's as if you plugged your ears with your fingers.) However, some children have no change in their hearing.

  • Mild hearing loss: A child may not hear -- or may hear very faintly -- the soft sounds at the beginnings and ends of words, such as the "s" in "sun" and the "t" in "cat; and words spoken quickly, such as "and."
  • Moderate hearing loss: A child may have trouble hearing most speech sounds, and may have trouble with short, softly spoken words and word endings. It's important to know that some children with otitis media have no loss of hearing. A hearing loss due to middle ear fluid should go away once the fluid is gone.

    How can I recognize if my child has a hearing loss?

  • Has difficulty paying attention
  • Shows a delayed response or no response when spoken to
  • Says "Huh?' often
  • Follows directions poorly
  • Turns up sound on radios, TV, CDs
  • Withdraws from other children
  • Is over-active or uncooperative

    Children with temporary hearing loss may show all, some, or none of these behaviors, which may be different at each age. It's often hard to tell whether a child has a hearing problem or whether the child is just acting a certain way because of age or temperament. If you're not sure, ask your healthcare provider for help.

    What can I do if I am concerned about my child's hearing?

    If your child's response to sound seems different or inconsistent, you should request a hearing evaluation to check her hearing. Children as young as newborns can have their hearing tested. Healthcare providers can screen hearing. When a child fails a hearing screening, you should take the child to an audiologist for a hearing evaluation. The audiologist specializes in diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss.

    How may language learning be affected by otitis media?

    During the first three years when children have the most problems with otitis media, they are learning to speak and understand words. Children learn to do this by interacting with people around them. It may be harder to hear and understand speech if sound is muffled by fluid in the middle ear. Some researchers report that frequent hearing loss in children with middle ear fluid may lead to speech and language difficulties. However, other researchers haven't found this to be true. Until the research is conclusive, it's best to pay special attention to the language development of children who have middle ear fluid.

    What can I do if I'm concerned about my child's speech and/or language development?

    When you have concerns about your child's language development, talk to your child's healthcare provider. A speech-language pathologist specializes in diagnosis and treatment of speech and language problems.

    Source: Ear Infections and Language Development, National Parent Information Network

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