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When kids can't hear

Signs a child is struggling with sound.

Article Author: Julie Dubin

Article Date:

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Your child passed the routine hearing screenings, but something doesn’t seem right. When the phone rings or the dog barks, he or she is unfazed – no response.

It’s important to look for any warning signs of possible hearing issues and trust your instincts, regardless of the results of hearing exams.

“The biggest difference between adults and kids with hearing loss is speech development. Adults can tell you they can’t hear, children may not be able to,” explained Scott Brietzke, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist (ENT) with Wolfson Children’s Hospital and Nemours Children’s Health, Jacksonville. “It’s easier to miss hearing trouble in younger children and it sometimes can lead to misdiagnoses, like behavior problems or autism. It’s important to pick up the cues. Early detection is critical for speech and language, social, emotional, and cognitive development.”

Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions children are born with, Dr. Brietzke added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers guidance on what to look for.

Signs in babies

An infant may have hearing issues if he or she:

  • Doesn’t startle with loud noises
  • Doesn’t turn to the source of a sound after 6 months of age
  • Doesn’t say single words by age 1, like “mama” or “dada”
  • Turns head when you’re visible but not when you call his or her name
  • Seems to hear some sounds but not others

Clues in kids

A child may be struggling to hear if he or she:

  • Has delayed or unclear speech
  • Doesn’t follow directions
  • Turns TV volume up too high
  • Often says “what?” or “huh?”
  • Speaks loudly
  • Depends on visual clues when you talk
  • Gets lower grades in school
  • Doesn’t respond in class

If you suspect hearing loss, ask your child’s pediatrician for a hearing test as soon as possible. Fortunately, testing is easy and inexpensive, said Dr. Brietzke.

“Pediatric hearing loss can progress over time. Young children can pass a hearing test at birth and at the pediatrician’s office early in life, and still develop hearing loss later,” said Dr. Brietzke. He noted the screening tests given in schools aren’t perfect. If you sense a problem, follow your gut and get your child evaluated.

Can you reverse hearing loss?

It depends on the cause(s). Mild hearing loss is most common and often linked to ear wax or fluid buildup. It can be managed at home or with a doctor's visit.

Nerve-based hearing loss is usually due to infections, birth defects or genetics, and is typically not reversible.

Prevent hearing problems

Parents can take some simple steps to help keep their children’s hearing intact. To start, make sure your child receives all routine vaccines to protect against infections and stay away from loud toys.

“Adults and older kids can prevent noise-induced hearing loss by avoiding prolonged exposure to piercing sound,” says Dr. Brietzke. “If your ears are ringing or hurting from exposure, then you need to intervene to protect your child’s ears.”

If you are in an environment with blaring music, for example, it’s important to wear ear protection.

Though many teens often wear earbuds or headphones, Dr. Brietzke said he has not seen any studies on those products, alone, doing harm.

“What matters is, if the noise is above a certain threshold, then there can be damage over time and hearing loss,” he said.

Fortunately, if there is a problem, specialists can help.

“Interventions continue to improve and evolve with technology and links for hearing aids with Bluetooth and cell phones,” said Dr. Brietzke. “In the future, we may have gene therapy for genetic causes of hearing loss.”

Wolfson Children’s Hospital’s pediatric ENTs are dedicated to assessing your child’s hearing and providing treatment options based on individual needs. Services are provided by specialists with Nemours Children’s Health, Jacksonville.

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