Hearing loss in babies and children

By Australian Hearing

It can be tricky to tell if babies are having trouble hearing because in the first two months of life they often don’t respond to the softest sounds they can hear. Rest assured, this is normal and a lack of response doesn’t necessarily mean your baby can’t hear.

Different levels of sound create various responses in babies, depending on how active they are:

  • Babies react to softer sounds when they are just dozing off, but less so when they’re awake and active
  • In early life, babies are often intrigued by voices, so they will be more responsive to a soft-level voice compared with their response to other noises around the home
  • They are more interested in complex sounds, such as rattles or music, than in the simple sounds of beeps or whistles
  • Babies get bored. If a sound is repeated too often they can lose interest and stop responding (this is known as habituation)

Typical hearing and listening behaviour in babies

Age 0-28 days:

  • Responds to nearby sounds
  • Is startled by sounds perceived as loud
  • Widens eyes or blinks at sudden sounds and may become distressed
  • Stirs or rouses from sleep in response to sounds. Babies will generally respond to soft sounds when in a light sleep. When babies are in a heavier sleep, sounds usually need to be perceived as loud to elicit a response
  • Eye movement – newborns may corner their eyes towards a nearby, continuous sound
  • At one month, babies may move their eyes and head towards a nearby sound. They may tense their body in response to certain sounds and they may extend their limbs or fan out their fingers or toes

Age 1 – 4 months:

  • Widens or blinks eyes and may wrinkle eyebrows in response to sounds
  • Eyes may shift towards sounds
  • Quietens when sounds occur and may become tense
  • Starts turning head towards sounds by four months.

Age 4 – 7 months:

  • Turns head towards sounds but can only locate the sound directly if it is at the same level as the ear
  • Appears to listen
  • You will observe the best hearing when it’s quiet. If the house is noisy it may be more difficult to see responses to certain sounds.

Children and hearing loss

Hearing loss in children can be caused by a number of things, including a middle ear infection, a genetic disorder, exposure to a disease while in the womb, or loud noise. Sometimes it’s not possible to determine what has caused the hearing loss. Hearing loss can be permanent or temporary and can occur suddenly or gradually.

In all cases, early intervention, particularly in the case of very young children up to the age of three years, is extremely important, as this is when the foundations of speech are laid. If your child’s hearing loss is diagnosed and treated early, their learning, speech and overall development is less likely to be compromised or delayed.

Signs to look for with a hearing loss or auditory disorder:

  • Difficulty understanding others in the presence of background noise
  • Frequently says, “huh?” or “what?”
  • Difficulty following oral instructions or classroom discussions
  • Poor attention, day dreaming, easily distracted
  • Give slow or delayed responses to oral questions in a classroom
  • May be disposed to behaviour problems due to frustration or boredom

If you have doubts about your child’s ability to hear, your GP will be able to refer you to an audiologist. An audiologist will test your child’s hearing in a number of ways, depending on their age, to determine the level of hearing loss.

Depending on the severity and type of hearing loss, your child may also be referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, a special education teacher and/or a speech pathologist. Forming a partnership with these health professionals and becoming actively involved in your child’s treatment will help to achieve the best outcome for your child – and you can ask these professionals about anything you’re unsure of.

For children aged 4.5 – 15 years there is now also an online App (Apple and Android tablets) called Sound Scouts which can test your child’s hearing. This game, developed by the National Acoustic Laboratories is based on scientific research and playing the game enables a valid hearing check for children and detects hearing problems, including those due to ear infections.

The screening will help determine whether your child has:

  •  Normal hearing
  • A hearing loss
  • Needs medical intervention
  • A problem understanding and processing speech in noise

What should you do if you’re concerned?

For any baby, toddler or child the first person you should see is your doctor for advice and diagnosis. They may refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist or to an audiologist for further advice.

You can also contact Australian Hearing (131 797 or visit hearing.com.au) if you’re concerned that your child requires assistance with their hearing. We specialise in the management of hearing loss in infants and children.

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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