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Staefa, Switzerland, October 7, 2013

In early childhood, our sense of hearing plays a crucial role, providing the basis for speech and communication skills. If a hearing impairment is not diagnosed and treated at an early stage, this can have a negative impact on a child’s personal development as well as educational, social and professional opportunities throughout life. Given this, it’s critical that parents are able to recognize the signs of possible hearing loss early and take appropriate action quickly.

For young children, every day is a journey of discovery; using their five senses, they are continuously gaining impressions and constantly learning new things. If one of their sensory organs is damaged, this can have an adverse effect on their development as a whole, as is demonstrated particularly by the loss of the ability to hear.  “Only through hearing and imitating speech can children adapt their articulation, discover the meanings of words and ultimately learn how to construct sentences,” explains Christine Jones, Au.D., CCC-A, Director of Pediatric Clinical Research at Phonak. “Generally, a child with normal development will acquire a basic command of language by the age of three or four.” 

However, children with untreated hearing impairment don’t perceive auditory stimuli to a sufficient extent or fail to respond to them at all. This will severely delay their language acquisition and may even prevent them from ever learning to speak. Deficiencies at this stage of development are extremely difficult to overcome later on. Children affected by this often experience problems with interpersonal communication and feel socially isolated. “That’s why it is so important to ensure that hearing loss in young children doesn’t go unnoticed for a long period of time,” said Dr. Jones. “The goal is to provide appropriate amplification to children with hearing loss by six months of age. This treatment, along with medical and therapeutic care can help children develop at an appropriate rate for their age.”

How can parents tell if their child cannot hear very well?

If a child responds unusually slowly to acoustic stimuli or fails to react at all – when being spoken to from outside his or her field of vision, for example – or does not seem frightened by sudden loud noises such as a door slamming, this could be an early sign of hearing loss. Parents should also investigate the possibility of hearing impairment if they notice that their child is learning to speak at a much slower rate than other children of the same age or stops uttering any sounds. Another possible indication is monotonous babbling or when a young child produces a more limited variety of sounds than his or her peers. 

What can be done to help children with hearing loss?

  • In many cases, hearing aids designed especially for children with a diagnosed hearing loss offer significant benefit. The correct hearing aid must be chosen individually for each child and will depend on various factors such as the degree of hearing loss and the needs of the child. Hearing aids are fitted individually by a pediatric audiologist.
  • Wireless radio systems, known as personal FM systems, can also be used to supplement hearing aids. The system includes a microphone worn by the child’s parent or teacher and a receiver fitted onto the child’s hearing aid. This system enables the child to clearly understand speech even over further distances or in situations with loud background noise.
  • If a hearing aid does not offer sufficient help, a cochlear implant (CI) may be an effective choice. Generally speaking, children who are one year old and older with the auditory nerve intact may be candidates for this surgical implant device. 

“Other support such as speech and/or music therapy should also be considered as means to help young children’s speech development at an rate appropriate for their age. This can also enhance the children’s verbal and communication skills,” explained Dr. Jones.

Useful tips for parents of children with hearing loss

  • Parents should treat their children as normally as possible.
  • Parents should speak as clearly as possible, maintain eye contact with their child when speaking, and teach their child to always look at the person talking to them. If the child does not understand everything they say, they should repeat what they said using different words.
  • Even at a very young age, children should be encouraged to ask if there is anything they have not understood correctly.
  • Parents should make sure that background noise is kept to a minimum when speaking to their child.
  • If parents read picture books to young children, they should bring the pictures to life with sounds as well as reading the text provided (e.g., imitating animal noises). This will enable children to imitate sounds and learn from an early stage how to participate verbally in communal reading.