Hearing Problems in Children—What Signs to Look For 

Signs of Hearing Problems in Children

Hearing loss is one of the least discussed health risks for children. For parents, signs can be difficult to interpret, and the risks can feel daunting, with long-term challenges in fundamental cognitive skills like talking, learning and listening.

As a parent, detecting hearing loss early is crucial in mitigating these long-term risks. In many cases, children treated early can manage extremely well with mild or even progressive deafness.

To help parents navigate how to identify hearing loss, we first explore the significance of hearing in children then highlight the key signals to keep an eye on!

In 1773, English writer Samuel Hearing described deafness as “one of the most desperate human calamities” after visiting a deaf school in Scotland. Today, some hundreds of years later, deafness can still feel like a defenceless and tragic illness for many children.

Hearing plays a crucial role in developing speech and verbal language, reading, understanding and completing tasks. For many toddlers, hearing is a key function of cognitive progress. When hearing difficulties go unnoticed or untreated, they can lead to a range of challenges for a child.

One of the most noticeable effects of hearing problems is speech and language delays. Typically, children learn to speak by imitating the sounds that they hear. Consequently, when they can’t hear well, their ability to develop speech and language skills is compromised. This delay can have a cascading effect on their social and (later in their) professional life.

Another typical consequence of hearing problems in children is struggling at school. Hearing difficulties can make it challenging for children to follow instructions, participate in class discussions and follow work tasks. More broadly, it can lead to academic apathy, impacting their educational experience.

In some cases, hearing loss can cause social isolation. As the hearing disability activist and writer Helen Keller reflected, “Deafness cuts people off from people”. So it’s no secret without effective communication, it can be challenging to build relationships. Further, children with hearing problems may find it difficult to engage in conversations, leading to feelings of disconnect, diminished self-confidence, and a sense of not belonging.

The emotional and psychological impact of untreated hearing problems can be profound. Frustration, anxiety, and depression can become part of a child’s life, affecting their overall well-being and happiness.

When detecting hearing loss in children, one of the most significant signals of hearing problems in toddlers is speech and language delays. While every child develops at their own pace, it’s essential to keep an eye out for a few signs. Toddlers typically have a growing vocabulary. By the age of two, they should be using a variety of words to express themselves. If your child’s vocabulary remains limited or isn’t expanding as expected, it could be a sign of hearing problems.

Another sign is difficulty in pronunciation. Pay attention to how your toddler pronounces words. This can be identified with obvious sound formation challenges or consistent mispronunciations may indicate hearing difficulties. An example is a vacant response when you call their name or constant misinterpretation of words.

Further, the volume and tone of speech can provide essential insights into a child’s hearing health. Suppose we find our children consistently speaking too loudly or too softly. In that case, they may have difficulty gauging their voice because they can’t hear themselves well. Some children with hearing problems may also struggle to discern the subtleties in speech, resulting in a monotonous tone when they talk.

Another possible symptom of hearing loss is interaction timings. If your toddler doesn’t react to sounds such as a ringing phone, music playing, or a dog barking, it could suggest hearing difficulties. Difficulty in participating in conversations or games can lead to social withdrawal, as children with hearing problems may appear uninterested in social interactions.

More physical characteristics could include frequent ear pulling or rubbing, which toddlers use to express discomfort, as they can’t consistently articulate their pain. If you notice this behaviour, it’s essential to consider the possibility of hearing trouble.

Lastly, observe how your toddler reacts to different sounds. Inconsistent responses can indicate hearing problems. It’s one thing to notice if your child doesn’t respond to loud sounds like sirens. Still, it can be equally symptomatic of hearing problems if they are hypersensitive to sudden noises, which may indicate another sign of potential hearing problems.

In Aotearoa, we are fortunate to have a healthy network of whānau — including public health bodies and voluntary health organisations—who are rallying to support the issue of hearing loss in  children.

As a parent, the best thing we can do is be perceptive to the symptoms and take your child to regular hearing check-ups at your local clinic. Thankfully, we are covered by the Well Child/Tamariki Ora service offered free to children from 4-6 weeks to 5 years, which includes questions about your child’s hearing. So, if you are unsure about your child’s hearing, don’t hesitate to take them to a free hearing check-up at your nearest doctor.