Hearing Loss in Children: Causes, Symptoms and Next Steps

The stereotypical image of a person with hearing loss is a grandparent whose hearing has faded over the years. But according to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears. Furthermore, an estimated 1 in 5 American teens experiences some degree of hearing loss.

The early years of a child's life are extremely important for learning, and hearing plays a crucial role in a child's social, emotional, and cognitive development. During the first few months of life, language learning begins. A child with hearing loss, even mild, may experience delays in speech and language development as well as social skills.

There are various reasons why a baby or child experiences hearing loss. Let's take a closer look at some causes:

Why are some babies born with hearing loss?

Hearing loss that's present at birth is called It may be congenital, whether it's a hereditary condition, is associated with prenatal factors, or occurs at the time of birth.

  • Genetic factors: According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this is responsible for about 1 out of 2 cases of hearing loss in infants. An individual's genetic code can cause changes in the hearing nerve or ear structure itself, which can diminish hearing.
  • Conditions at the time of birth : Babies born prematurely, with low birth weight or lack of oxygen, are at a higher risk of having hearing loss.
  • Infections: If a mother has an infection during pregnancy, her baby can be at higher risk for hearing loss.

What causes acquired hearing loss in children?

Hearing loss can also be acquired , meaning it occurs after birth, usually because of infection, medical conditions, or injury. Although it is not always possible to determine the exact cause, there are several common causes:

  • Infections, particularly otitis media (infection in the middle ear), meningitis, mumps, measles, chickenpox, and influenza. These can trigger damage to the eardrum, the bones of the ear, or even the hearing nerve, all of which may be permanent.
  • Common ear problems such as excessive ear wax and glue ear, which is caused by an accumulation of fluid inside the ear. These are usually temporary issues which can be resolved without lasting damage.
  • Head injury can damage the tiny structures in the ear.
  • Exposure to loud noises, such as music or the TV on high volume for prolonged periods, as well as short bursts of excessive noise, such as fireworks.
  • Medicines such as those used to treat illnesses (particularly malaria, cancer, and drug-resistant tuberculosis) in babies and children are ototoxic, meaning they can cause damage to the auditory system.

What are the signs of hearing loss in children?

"Many children with mild or progressive deafness seem to manage extremely well," according to the National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS). Kids can be adept at developing coping strategies early in life which means it can sometimes be difficult to identify a hearing problem. That said, there are some signals to watch for:

Common symptoms of hearing loss in babies include:

  • Doesn't react to loud noises
  • Doesn't respond to your voice
  • Turns to look at you but not in response to speech or sound
  • Responds to some sounds but not others

Signals of hearing loss in toddlers and school-age children are:

  • Unclear or delayed speech
  • Doesn't respond when called or to instructions
  • Behavioral problems
  • Problems concentrating
  • Speaking very loudly or softly
  • Learning difficulties
  • Difficulty communicating in noisy environments
  • Easily becomes withdrawn or frustrated
  • Wanting the TV volume very high or sits very close to the TV to hear

Can hearing loss in children be prevented?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 60 percent of hearing loss in children under age 15 could be avoided. In an article for Hearing Tracker, hearing health advocate Shari Eberts shared her tips for preventing noise-induced hearing loss in children. These include turning music volume down, limiting the time the child listens to music and ensuring they wear hearing protection in noisy environments. Other preventative measures include making sure children receive treatment for ear infections and all regular childhood vaccines.

How can I support my child with hearing loss?

Early intervention is crucial to help kids with hearing loss achieve their full potential. Many children with hearing loss are born to parents with normal hearing, meaning it can be difficult to know how to support their child.

Some strategies include:

  • Ensure they receive appropriate interventions, e.g., hearing aids or implants
  • Seek professional speech and language support
  • Create a support network by connecting with local support groups or online forums
  • Explore sounds with the child – for instance, playing instruments or showing them how to form letter sounds by emphasizing lip patterns
  • Speak clearly and slowly, facing the child, and maintaining good eye contact
  • Use some basic sign language or gestures to aid in understanding
  • Work together with teachers to develop an individual support plan
  • Connect the child with a hearing buddy at school—someone who can help to repeat any information that the child may have missed

If you are concerned about your child's hearing, arrange an appointment with an audiologist who can carry out a hearing test to confirm whether your child has a hearing problem, and explain what the options are for managing it.