When to take your child to a hearing professional

Contributed by | Monday, March 7th, 2016

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kids walking with mom
Learn about the milestones
for speech and hearing so
you know whether to seek
help for your child.
 

Nothing can panic a parent any faster than having a sick child. And, whether you listen to the advice of other parents or do your own online medical research, it’s difficult to know whether you should let the illness run its course or call the doctor.

One of the most common reasons parents take their children to the doctor is for ear infections, as well as for other issues related to the ear, nose and throat. Are your fears about your child’s hearing founded — or unfounded? While there’s no substitute for parental instincts, here are some clues that may suggest your child has hearing loss and it’s time to see a hearing healthcare professional.

How common is hearing loss in children?

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, 3 million children under the age of 18 have some hearing loss, including four out of every 1,000 newborns.

Your baby most likely had a hearing screening before they left the hospital; however, problems can still occur shortly after infancy or later in childhood. In addition to Eustachian tube defects and other genetic causes, exposure to loud noise (both constant and single exposure), infections, trauma and certain medications can cause hearing loss.

Signs of hearing loss in infants and toddlers

Normal hearing infants react to noise and coo, laugh or gurgle. As they grow older, they move their eyes and turn their head to search for the source of a sound as well as babble and change the pitch of their voice. Toddlers recognize words for toys, body parts and other familiar objects. They rock to music and try to repeat words. By the age of 18 months, they have a small vocabulary which they use to put together two-word sentences and their voices sound normal. They can follow simple directions like “give momma the block.”

If your child isn’t reaching all of these milestones, don’t panic. Your child might just be developing at a different pace than his peers.

You should take your infant to an audiologist if he or she:

  • Does not respond in any way to unexpected loud noises
  • Does not turn his head in the direction of your voice
  • Does not babble or try to imitate sound
  • Does not understand simple phrases by age 12 months

You should take your toddler to an audiologist if he or she:

  • Does not respond to sounds or his name, and cannot locate where sound is coming from
  • Does not imitate speech or use simple words for familiar people and objects
  • Does not listen to television at normal levels
  • Does not use speech or show growth in language like other children his age

In general, if your infant or toddler does not respond to noises from behind and does not startle at loud sounds, this merits a visit to an audiologist.

How to prepare them for the appointment

Hearing evaluations for infants and toddlers are painless and only take a few minutes; however, not all babies enjoy having medical examinations, especially when they involve unfamiliar objects. Most newborns sleep through the testing; however, you can help older babies and toddlers prepare for the exam by playfully introducing them to a few of the procedures and equipment they might encounter.

  • Use a small pocket flashlight to look inside their ear and playfully say “What’s in Johnny’s ear?” If they’re old enough to mimic you, give them the flashlight and let them look in your ear.
  • Put on a set of headphones and rock to imaginary music, then put the headphones on their head and encourage them to imitate you.

Signs of hearing loss in children

If you child hasn’t had an ear infection yet, count your lucky stars. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), five of every six children have an ear infection by the time they are three years old. Most ear infections clear up on their own, even though they are uncomfortable and can cause temporary hearing loss. Other causes of temporary hearing loss include earwax and fluid in the ears.

Your child should have their hearing tested before they start school, but if you suspect your child isn’t hearing well before then, call your doctor.

You should take your child to an audiologist if he or she:

  • Talks too loudly
  • Watches television or listens to music at an abnormally high volume
  • Complains he cannot hear the teacher and his grades suffer
  • Has delayed or unclear speech
  • Has trouble following directions or seems to daydream frequently
  • Complains of ringing, whooshing or other sounds in his ears

How to prepare them for the appointment

Children between the ages of two and four are typically tested using conditioned play audiometry (CPA), where they wear headphones and are asked to complete simple directions when they hear a sound, such as putting a block into a container. Older children may be asked to raise their hand or press a button when they hear a sound.

Talk to your child before the appointment and, using simple terms, explain this procedure. If you have a set of headphones at home, let your child listen to some familiar music while wearing them. Tell him the name of the hearing healthcare professional you’ll be visiting and how good they are at helping people hear their best. Most hearing healthcare professionals who work with children know how to put them at ease, but be sure to clue them in to any peculiar likes or dislikes your child may have before you arrive.

Summary

There are a number of reasons why your child may develop hearing loss. Sometimes the problems are temporary and can be resolved with medical treatment or surgery. Other times the problem is more severe and results in permanent hearing loss. Regardless, it’s important to have the issue addressed by a hearing healthcare professional as soon as you notice a potential problem. Hearing loss can result in delays in speech and language development and cause learning delays as well as social and behavioral issues. Early intervention is the key to healthy hearing.

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