How do recurrent ear infections affect language development in babies?

With winter, the incidence of ear infections in infants and children increases and parents should monitor their hearing if kids get them often.

 Pediatrician with baby at clinic (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Pediatrician with baby at clinic
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Part of prep for winter is making sure your kids have warm clothes and hats. Yet, along with the rain and cold, winter equals ear infections for many babies and kids.

To talk about ear infections, one needs to be familiar with our hearing system. Meital Manshari, a pediatric speech therapist, says that our hearing system consists of three main parts. First, the outer ear, which includes the earpiece and ear canal, then the middle ear which is a space filled with air and has 3 tiny bones and next the inner ear which contains the auditory organ known as the "cochlea". The ability to hear clearly depends on how well these three parts work together. After birth, the baby's hearing will be tested. This test allows for initial identification of any hearing problems, either congenital, or perhaps some damage occurred during fetal development.

What are ear infections?

Otitis media, the formal medical term for an ear infection, is an accumulation of fluid in the middle ear cavity. In infants and toddlers the natural process of draining the fluid of the middle ear is less efficient than that of adults so infections are very common, especially during the winter. Inflammation of the ear is marked by a toddler being agitated, having a low fever or tugging on the ear to show pain or discomfort. Also, fluid can accumulate in the ears even without the appearance of inflammation.

How infections affect language development

Beyond medical complications which require treatment and follow-up by an ENT, ear infections can affect hearing ability and language acquisition. Think about how your surroundings sound when you dive underwater. The hearing is dull, right? In fact, when fluid accumulates in the ears isn’t treated, this impairs conduction, as when the conduction of sound waves is disturbed by fluids, sounds aren’t amplified efficiently so a toddler can’t hear clearly.

 Baby with pacifier (credit: INGIMAGE) Baby with pacifier (credit: INGIMAGE)

These are usually "mild" hearing impairments, but can really affect language acquisition and speech development. Fluids can be found in one or both ears, but hearing loss in one ear also affects language and speech acquisition. Clear hearing is crucial for proper language acquisition processes and good speech comprehension. When the hearing mechanisms don’t function well, the sounds of the language and the environment aren’t heard optimally.

When should you take your baby or child for a hearing test?

● When they don’t turn their heads to loud and sudden sounds

When a kid often asks "what" and has difficulty following the conversation

When there’s a speech delay

● When it’s usually hard to understand your child

If you know that your child is prone to recurrent ear infections, it’s important to talk in a way that suits them to make language and speech accessible: reduce background noise if possible, use body movements, make sure the child sees your face as facial expressions and mouth movements convey what you’re saying. If you suspect any delays, contact a speech therapist for an evaluation and follow her recommendations.

This article doesn’t replace medical advice from a pediatrician, ENT or speech therapist.

This article was written in partnership with the JAMA parenting app.