Hearing Loss in One Ear Can Cause Language Problems

Filed under: Medical Conditions, Development/Milestones: Babies, In The News, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers


Your child is late to talk and his preschool teachers are concerned. So, what do you do? Chances are, you follow the school's recommendation, enroll him in speech therapy and hope some one-on-one attention will get his tongue rolling.

But that might not address the actual problem. A new study shows diminished hearing in only one ear can have a significant impact on language development, and it often goes undiagnosed.

"What happens in many situations, the children are screened in the newborn nursery, then the next hearing test may not occur until elementary school when they have routine screening, " Nancy Tye-Murray, an audiologist and professor at Washington University School of Medicine who was one of the study's authors, tells ParentDish. "Even a mild hearing loss can result in delay."A surprising number of children suffer such a loss -- one in 20 by the time they're old enough for school. Because they have one functioning ear, it often appears as though their hearing is fine and they are just not paying attention, are listening selectively or are easily distracted by background noises, according to the study's authors.

Sometimes these children miss out on high-frequency sounds, such as consonants, Tye-Murray says. And even when the hearing loss is diagnosed, if it's only in one ear, children often are not fitted with hearing aids, the authors write in the June issue of Pediatrics.

But contrary to what was previously thought, hearing impairment in only one ear can hurt a child's ability to understand and use language, the authors write. They found that children so impaired had poorer oral language scores than those with normal hearing in both ears.

To make sure those delays weren't due to other factors, researchers identified 74 children between the ages of six and 12 who had normal hearing siblings -- the thought being that siblings are exposed to the same things, so the difference in scores could be attributed to the hearing loss and not to environmental or genetic factors.

All of the children were given a test that is widely used to assess language comprehension and expression. The average score is 100; those with hearing loss in one ear had an average score of 90. The effect of the hearing loss was the strongest in children who live in families with income levels below the poverty line, or whose mothers have little education.

"I would say any child who is demonstrating delays in either language or articulation should immediately have a hearing test," Tye-Murray tells ParentDish. "The importance of a hearing test cannot be overstated."

Related: Hearing Loss Doesn't Affect Quality of Life for Kids with Cochlear Implants

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.