Being able to hear properly not only allows children to know what is going on around them, but it plays an important part in the way they develop emotionally and their ability to learn.
Each year around 840 babies are born deaf in this country according to Deafness Research UK. Yet most children will experience some temporary hearing loss at one time in their lives.
Premature babies, low birth weight babies, those who have had severe jaundice or babies born to mothers who have had infections such as Cytomegalovirus (CMV), Toxoplasmosis or Herpes virus all have a higher than normal chance of losing some of their hearing. Early problems should be picked up by a hearing test given shortly after birth.
“Ideally we do the test three days after birth or more as this allows the ears to clear of the residue that may be left in the ears from the birth and being in the womb,” says Neil Kavanagh, an audiologist at The Portland Hospital.
The most common cause of acquired hearing loss in children is glue ear. This occurs when mucus builds up behind the ear drum as a result of an infection or after a cold, so there is a physical barrier to the sound getting through as normal which can cause mild or moderate hearing loss. Cases of glue ear peak in the winter.
“A child with glue ear may get frustrated quickly – that’s because it takes them more effort to listen and hear and so they get tired quicker than normal,” says Hamid Daya, a Consultant Paediatric ENT surgeon at the Portland Hospital.
“They won’t respond when you talk to them or may avoid situations with a lot of children as they can’t hear against the background noise. They will also often skip off the beginning or ends of their words. For some children it can be a temporary issue lasting a few months after a cold but for others it can last longer. At any one time in the winter season, 25 out of 100 children aged between two and five may be found to have glue ear. However if checked again after 6 weeks fewer than five will have glue ear,” says Mr Daya.
If the problem endures, it can impact on speech and social skills. For this reason, if it does not clear within a few months, hearing aids or grommets will be suggested. Grommets are tiny tubes inserted into the ear drum which allows the ‘glue’ behind the ear drum to drain away.
“Often it only gets picked up after parents have taken their child for speech and language therapy,” says Neil Kavanagh. The earlier hearing loss is picked up the better. However, hearing problems aren’t always picked up as quickly as they should be according to Vivienne Michael, chief executive of Deafness Research UK.
“In our experience, children with real hearing problems are being missed and a correct diagnosis can take longer than necessary. There is also a general problem whereby, in many cases, antibiotics are being prescribed needlessly for children’s ear conditions such as glue ear. Glue ear in particular is not best tackled by antibiotics.”
So what signs should you watch for?
“A common misconception is that a child won’t babble if they have hearing problems – but actually some with hearing problems do,” says Mr Daya.
“A more telling sign is if a baby does not respond or startle when the door slams. In older children, delayed speech and shying away from large groups of children may indicate a hearing impairment. The bottom line is if you think your child has hearing problems get them tested. I find that in nine times out of ten cases a mother’s instinct is right,” says Neil Kavanagh.
By Lucy Elkins