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We don't come out of the womb fully functional, and neither do our ears. Here's a look into hearing development in children, and common problems that occur early in life.
2019-09-19

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The Development of Children's Hearing

From the moment we're born to the time we stop maturing, our bodies are constantly developing and growing. While growth spurts and puberty are the most obvious, our ears go through development too.

Like most of our other senses, our hearing begins developing in the womb. However, there’s a long way to go until our hearing is sophisticated, and our hearing plays a large part in how we learn to communicate, interact with our surroundings, and process knowledge. Here’s a look into child hearing, how it develops, and what problems can occur early in life.

How Babies Hear

A baby’s hearing starts while they’re still in the womb, and their ears begin forming when they’re just 9 weeks old. A baby’s ears begin as small indentations, and the ears grow from there. By 18 weeks, the baby is able to hear sound. A baby can hear sounds from outside the womb, but they’re muffled by half. This is because the baby is surrounded by fluid, and sound is not very clear. However, the baby hears a variety of internal sounds as well, including the mother’s heartbeat, her stomach growling, and her breathing.

Around 24 weeks, the baby will begin responding to sounds and voices. A mother’s voice is an important part of the baby’s early life. It is the clearest one they can hear, and they actually learn to recognize it over time. While many mothers talk to their children-to-be, many of them don’t know that their baby is actually listening.

It’s a common misconception that babies will have higher IQs if they listen to classical music in the womb, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no point in playing music for them. However, it’s important to keep loud noise exposure low during pregnancy. While loud sounds and occasional concerts won’t harm them, excessive noise exposure may result in hearing loss before they’re even born. There’s some research linking noise exposure and infant hearing loss, so it’s best to treat your baby’s hearing carefully.

How Hearing Develops

Once your baby is born, hearing development continues. While some babies are born with hearing loss immediately after birth, some develop hearing loss shortly after birth — usually after an illness. hearing screening usually takes place in the first few days after birth to ensure any issues are identified early. It’s also important to vaccinate your child according to your pediatrician’s timeline and avoid situations where they might contract serious illnesses. Keeping an eye on their hearing can also help you detect any hearing problems before they become a serious issue. If you think your baby might be suffering from hearing loss, it’s best to visit a pediatrician and audiologist as soon as possible.

Hearing is tightly linked to how children develop and communicate. They use their hearing to locate voices and people, find comfort, gain knowledge, and play games. All of these things can be seen during their developmental stages.

From birth, babies will react to loud noises by waking up or crying. They will recognize their mother’s voice and begin recognizing the voices of other family members or caretakers as well. Babies will even adjust how they cry to signal different needs. Crying is the only thing infants can do to help themselves, so they rely on others to understand their cries and help them. Infants will also calm down or smile when spoken to, particularly by their mothers. Many babies find comfort in the sound of their caretakers’ voices.

At around four to six months old, babies will begin developing a better understanding of sound. They will respond to changes in vocal tone, reacting differently to stern voices and gentle baby-talk. They will begin tracking noises with their eyes and might seek out toys that make noise. They will notice music, laughing, and even begin babbling to mimic speech.

By the age of one, babies will begin building vocabulary and refined understanding of sound. They will babble more coherently, trying to copy the sounds of words around them. Many babies will learn simple words like “mama” and “ball” and recognize their own name. They will listen when spoken to and turn in the direction of sounds. They might even communicate by holding up their arms, waving, or babbling. They also use sound to play games like patty-cake and peek-a-boo.

If a baby seems to ignore sounds or fail to process them, it might be a sound of infantile hearing loss. In these cases, a hearing screening test and aural checkup might be necessary.

Recognizing Hearing Loss in Children

Child development depends largely on hearing. They use their ears to communicate, learn speech, and understand the world around them. If their hearing is hindered or gone entirely, they might have a harder time learning how to speak and make their needs known. 
 
Babies with hearing loss might exhibit behaviors like:

  • Failure to respond to their name.
  • Not turning to look where a sound is coming from.
  • Touching or grabbing their ears due to pain or noise.
  • Obliviousness to sounds or voices around them.

Children who have learned to speak will exhibit more obvious signs of hearing loss, including:

  • Having difficulty in school.
  • Odd speech patterns or cadences in their voice.
  • Complaining of ear pain or loud noises frequently.
  • Staring at people’s mouths when they speak (lipreading).
  • Misunderstanding words often, even when spoken clearly or repeated.
  • Frequently saying “what” or “huh”, even when they’re paying attention.
  • Sitting close to the television, turning up the volume, or asking for subtitles.
  • Not responding to their name and not recognizing when you’re speaking to them.

These hearing problems might be caused by temporary forms of hearing loss, like ear infections, or they might be a sign of a more serious problem. These child hearing problems can include conditions like auditory processing hearing loss or acquired hearing loss.

Hearing Problems in Children

Hearing problems in children come in three primary forms: congenital, acquired, and transient. Congenital hearing conditions are present from birth and are usually identified early on. Acquired hearing loss occurs after birth and can be caused by injury or illness. Transient hearing loss is most often caused by temporary ear infections and blockages of the Eustachian tube. 
 
Congenital hearing loss can be caused by: 

  • Genetic conditions like autosomal recessive hearing loss, which is the most common form of genetic hearing loss(link to blogpost: “inheriting hearing loss / genetics” when ready). This is where both hearing parents carry a recessive gene for hearing loss and pass it on to their child. Autosomal dominant hearing loss is the second most common, and occurs when a parent with the dominant gene passes it onto their child.
  • Genetic syndromes like Treacher Collins syndrome, Alport syndrome, Down syndrome, Ushers syndrome, and others.
  • Premature birth.
  • Conditions that affect the birth, including rubella, toxoplasmosis, and herpes.
  • Birth complications like lack of oxygen or the need for blood transfusions.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse by the mother.
  • The use of ototoxic medications, including NSAIDs or certain antibiotics.

Acquired hearing loss can be caused by:

  • Head injury
  • Perforated eardrum
  • Serious infections (measles, mumps, meningitis, and whooping cough)
  • Prolonged exposure to loud noises
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Otosclerosis
  • Frequent or untreated ear infections

Transient hearing loss is often caused by ear infections, which clear up with medication and treatment. However, if left untreated, transient hearing loss can become acquired hearing loss.

All forms of hearing loss can have a negative effect on a child’s development and hearing. For that reason, it’s important to keep a close eye on how your child is hearing and communicating with others. If you begin seeing problems, take them in for a hearing screening test. Even if there’s nothing wrong, it’s best to play it safe with your child’s ears.

Was this article helpful to you? If you have more questions about hearing health, or just want to learn more about how our ears function, Signia Hearing has an archive full of information. We add to this collection every week, so subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated about future articles. We cover every topic related to hearing, from general knowledge to hearing aid-specific content. There’s a lot to learn about your ears and how they work, and we aim to answer as many questions as possible.

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