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Understanding the impacts of childhood hearing loss

medical person looking in baby's ear, child resting on mother's shoulder looking at camera with a puzzled look
(Getty Images)

Approximately 3 of every 1,000 infants in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears, making it one of the most frequently occurring congenital conditions in the country. While the majority of these children are otherwise healthy, the impacts of untreated hearing loss can be significant.

The ability to perceive the full range of speech sounds is essential for spoken language development, learning and social engagement, says Kristin Knight, M.S., an audiologist at the Child Development and Rehabilitation Center at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

“Even the mildest cases of hearing loss can cause difficulties with speech recognition,” says Knight. “When some of the speech sounds are not perceived, the child has to spend more energy trying to understand the message. This causes greater demands on cognition and attention, and may result in increased stress, frustration and fatigue.” 

Despite the prevalence of newborn hearing screening, some hearing loss may not present until later in life or may result from injury, infection or exposure to certain medications. Children who exhibit signs of speech or language delay, who have speech articulation difficulties or lack of response to common questioning may benefit from a hearing evaluation, even if the child passed the newborn hearing test.  According to Knight, undetected or untreated hearing loss may be misperceived as a behavioral problem, developmental delay or learning difficulty.

“To avoid these mischaracterizations, and ensure proper treatment is obtained, a hearing evaluation can be invaluable at any age,” says Knight.

While it isn’t easy to learn that a child has hearing loss, modern hearing technologies such as hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive listening devices are available for infants and children as soon as a hearing loss is identified. Early intervention programs -- available through public schools statewide -- and hearing rehabilitation services provide families with useful information and developmental support.

“The earlier a treatment is introduced, the more favorable the impact on the child,” Knight says. And while such services are vital to a child’s long-term outcome, personal interaction is equally impactful. “Family members and friends are important to not only establishing consistent use of hearing technology, but also for stimulating a child’s communicative development. Everyday activities such as talking, calling the child’s attention to sounds, reading together, learning new words, singing or playing word-rhyming games may be the key to unlocking a child’s auditory and language development.”

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