What to Know About Your Child’s Hearing

Hearing in the first few years of life is essential for social, emotional, and cognitive development, and is critical for speech and language development. As a parent or caregiver, there are a few things you can look for when it comes to your child’s hearing.

The hearing system starts to form around the 18th week of pregnancy, and continues until a baby is around 5 or 6 months of age. By about 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy, a fetus starts to hear low-pitch sounds that are outside the womb, such as a dog barking. Later in the pregnancy, it can hear music, environmental noises, and voices. Some studies have shown that babies at birth recognize the patterns and sounds of their native language!

After birth, a baby’s hearing continues to develop. The following milestones are useful when observing a baby or young child’s hearing. With older babies and toddlers, speech and language development can be a clue as to how a child is hearing.

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There are many reasons why infants and children can have hearing loss.

Temporary hearing loss can be caused by fluid in the middle ear (the space behind the eardrum), or wax build up in the ear canal. Most of the time, these resolve on their own or with medical help, and hearing returns to normal.

Some causes of permanent hearing loss that is present from birth include:

• Genetics (e.g. gene for hearing loss inherited from a parent, or a syndrome such as Pendred or Down Syndrome)

• Cleft palate

• Infection during pregnancy or delivery (e.g. cytomegalovirus)

• Birth complications (e.g. lack of oxygen at birth)

• Very low birth weight

Some causes of permanent hearing loss that is acquired during childhood include:

• Diseases (e.g. meningitis, mumps)

• Some medications (e.g. chemotherapy)

• Noise exposure

Some hearing issues can develop even without risk factors. Middle ear infections are one of the most common health conditions of young children. More than 75 per cent of children experience at least one ear infection by age three. Signs younger children may show are tugging/pulling at their ears, fussiness, changes in appetite and sleeping patterns, fever, fluid draining from the ear, and/or a noticeable change in hearing ability. It is important to protect little ears from loud noise exposure, which can cause permanent hearing damage. Be careful when choosing toys for young children. Some battery-powered toys for babies and toddlers can make sound loud enough to damage hearing, especially as young children may hold a toy close to their ear. Look for on-off switches and volume controls if the toy does create sound.

With more time spent at home during Covid-19, many of us find ourselves using devices and watching movies with our children. It is important to model good listening behaviour for our children by keeping our televisions, sound systems, and personal listening devices at a comfortable level. Talk to your children from a young age about protecting their ears. Wear hearing protection when using loud tools at home and when going to loud environments, such as sporting events or concerts. Get a pair of child-sized, noise-reducing earmuffs that you can help your child put on when at loud events.

Children may appear to have difficulty hearing when listening to someone wearing a mask. This may be normal, as speech can sound muffled through a mask and we cannot see someone’s mouth to get lipreading cues. However, if you feel that your child is having excessive difficulty, you should arrange for your child’s hearing to be tested.

All babies born in BC get a newborn hearing screening shortly after birth as part of the BC Early Hearing Program. Babies on Vancouver Island who do not pass the first screening will be referred for a hearing assessment at an Island Health Hearing Clinic. Babies with risk factors for hearing loss are also monitored at these clinics.

Children on Vancouver Island will also get a hearing screening at school during their kindergarten year. Your child will receive further assessment at an Island Health Hearing Clinic if hearing is not within normal limits.

Parents and caregivers are the best people to look for signs of hearing loss in their child. If you have any concern about your child’s hearing, arrange a hearing assessment through your physician or by contacting your local Island Health Hearing Clinic:

Victoria 250-388-2250

West Shore 250-519-3490

Nanaimo 250-755-6269

Courtenay 250-331-8526