Halfway through a school district hearing test, my 4-year-old daughter began fidgeting instead of raising her hand. The audiologist shook her head; she'd been unable to get a response while screening Kelsey's right ear. Many tests later, my husband and I learned her hearing loss was complete and irreversible. We'll never know when it happened or how, but what bothers me most is that we caught it so late. Looking back, the signs seem obvious?her teacher complained of attention problems, and we noticed Kelsey often withdrew from noisy group activities.
In our country, nearly 1 in 1,000 children is born with significant hearing loss in both ears, while many more suffer a lesser degree of impairment. Fortunately, a growing number of states now require infant screening, and audiologists can identify hearing loss early with two painless tests performed while babies sleep. But many kids experience hearing troubles later in childhood as well. Though various medical conditions can cause these acquired losses, most often the culprit is the middle ear fluid associated with ear infections.
"Middle ear fluid is the most common reason for a temporary hearing loss in children," says Michael A. Rothschild, a pediatric ear, nose, and throat specialist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. "And probably 80 percent of kids experience some sort of ear infection or fluid in the ear during childhood."
Whatever the cause, early identification and treatment of hearing loss can prevent setbacks in your toddler's language development. But how do you determine whether your busy tot is tuning you out or having trouble hearing? According to Dr. Rothschild, these signs may indicate your child needs screening:
1. Your toddler lacks age-appropriate speech development. You've noticed language delays and pronunciation troubles.
2. He has difficulty socializing or exhibits behavioral problems.
3. He tends to withdraw from noisy group situations.
4. He doesn't respond normally to speech and other sounds.
5. He seems inattentive and easily distracted.
"Some children with hearing loss are labeled as having poor concentration skills, Attention Deficit Disorder, or even learning disabilities," Dr. Rothschild stresses.
If tests show hearing loss from middle ear fluid, try not to panic. Uninfected fluid often goes away by itself and ear infections can be treated with antibiotics. Children with recurring problems or persistent fluid can benefit from surgery to install temporary ear drainage tubes.
For kids with permanent hearing loss, like my daughter, prompt identification is still important. Preferential classroom seating, hearing aids, and other interventions can make a huge difference in a hearing-impaired child's learning and development. Alerting teachers to our daughter's hearing loss has helped Kelsey, now an attentive third grader, excel in school. With her sensitive left ear doing the work of two, she doesn't consider herself disadvantaged in any way and neither do we.
For more information on ear infections/middle ear fluid, visit Seattle's Hearing, Speech, and Deafness Center website at www.hsdc.org/hrgloss.htm
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