Hearing loss affects a large per cent of the population in the UK but recent research from MED-EL found that a whopping 44% of people have never had their hearing checked as an adult. However, when we become parents, this is something that we will inevitably have to think about for our children and we’ve joined forces with Ben Meredith, audiologist and Senior Clinical Specialist from MED-EL to gather his expert advice on what to do if you suspect your baby or child may be experiencing hearing problems.
Approximately 1 in 1000 children are born with a permanent hearing loss which is undoubtedly a small but significant number. Finding out what to do can be scary but there is help every step of the way.
Every baby born in the UK should have access to the new-born hearing screen which is a test that’s carried out a few days after birth and involves placing a little probe into the baby’s ear. It monitors the ear to see if there is a healthy response to the test. Most of the time, everything is completely fine but if a response is not detected, your baby will be retested on another day. Any child who requires further in-depth testing will be referred for further audiology testing afterwards. Doctors can be very quick to pick up any hearing difficulties in babies and whether you have your baby at home or in the hospital, make sure you attend the hearing test.
Causes of Hearing Loss
As your child gets older you might notice the hearing loss and there can be a number of different causes.
A very common cause in younger children is something widely called ‘glue ear’ which is a temporary hearing loss that can come and go. This is often associated with coughs and colds and children are a lot more prone to it than adults. It is essentially fluid build-up behind the eardrum and can often resolve on its own after a few weeks or months. Some children, especially those with other health conditions such as Down Syndrome or a cleft palate, can be more prone to glue ear and in those cases, it can be long-standing so it’s important to look out for it.
It is possible for children to develop a permanent hearing loss as they grow older although this is rare. Causes can include certain infections such as meningitis, measles, mumps or sometimes even chickenpox. Some children may also develop a hearing loss due to an existing health condition.
The solution is often just to monitor your child’s hearing as it will often clear by itself. In the meantime, you may be given advice on ‘hearing tactics’ – strategies to minimise the effects of the hearing loss in everyday life. However, if the hearing loss is causing significant problems to a children’s ability to listen you can get a bone conduction aid such as an ADHEAR, or a conventional hearing aid. There are also surgical procedures such as grommets that are used to treat the condition. The hospital will discuss with you the course of treatment that is most suitable for your child.
Main Signs of Hearing Loss in your Child
While the signs of hearing loss will depend on the age of your child, the most common to look out for are:
- Their speech isn’t as developed as it should be for their age or is unclear.
- You notice them sitting very close to the TV or computer screen in order to listen or have the volume turned up excessively. (n.b. a lot of kids like to do this anyway so don’t panic unnecessarily!)
- They don’t always respond to you calling them, especially if they’re in a different room.
- They may struggle to tell which direction sounds are coming from.
- They may talk more loudly than usual.
What should you do?
If you notice a problem, the first thing you should do is seek medical advice from your GP, mention it to your school nurse, or if your child is younger, speak to your health visitor. If your GP, School Nurse or Health Visitor is at all concerned, they will send your child for an assessment at an audiology clinic. Your child will usually be seen by the Audiology clinic within 6 weeks although this can be sooner if Audiology arranges a more urgent appointment.
The solution to hearing loss is very much dependent on the type and degree – so if it’s mild, moderate, severe or profound, and whether the hearing loss is conductive, sensorineural, or a mixed hearing loss. Whether the hearing loss is thought to be temporary or permanent will also be a factor.
Babies can wear conventional hearing aids or bone conduction aids, and if they have hearing loss that’s affecting their ability to listen for a significant period of time, they will be offered one and encouraged to wear it as soon as possible.
If the loss is profound, they may be referred for an assessment for cochlear implants which are surgically implanted devices that provide hearing, using electric signals which directly stimulate the nerve of hearing. (Some families may opt not to have the hearing loss treated medically, and instead explore the option of using sign language as their child’s main mode of communication).
Bone conduction implants or middle ear implants are also available for children who need them.
Early intervention is very important when it comes to babies. During the first few months, infants learn to understand a variety of sounds around them. They can very quickly distinguish between speech and other environmental sounds. The first few years are especially important for language acquisition. In general, the lower a child’s age when receiving a hearing device, the easier it will be for him or her to learn to use and benefit from it. A younger child is better able to adapt to new information, and when children are provided with a hearing device at a very young age, they have the best chance to develop clear spoken language and can often “catch up” with others.
As your child gets older, a Speech Therapist and Teacher of the Deaf can become involved if required. These professionals can help them undertake a number of different activities that will help them develop their speech and listening.
My advice would be to seek medical advice if you’re concerned, and don’t panic – you’re not alone. Whatever you do, don’t simply do tests at home – seek help from a professional and remember, the majority of hearing loss can be temporary. If an implant is an option for your child, there are also peer support groups that you can talk to – they are often volunteers who have been through an implant process themselves or parents of children who are. HearPeers Mentors are a great starting point.