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Ear Infections and Speech Delay: What’s the Connection?

Recently I met a wonderful family who expressed concerns regarding their daughter’s delayed language development. During the intake interview we discussed aspects of the child’s birth and developmental history. When I inquired about a history of ear infections, the father seemed a bit exasperated with that question. He wanted to know, “Why do people keep asking that? Is it part of a script? I mean- the pediatrician checks her ears every time we go. I am sure her hearing is fine.”

When assessing a child’s speech and language abilities, it is important to look at the whole child. As speech language pathologists, it is our job to gather all pertinent information in order to make an accurate diagnosis. This includes learning as much as possible about a child’s birth and development. There is a direct connection between ear infections and speech and language delays. When a child has an ear infection, fluid builds in the middle ear. The presence of fluid (whether infected or not) prevents the ear drum from vibrating normally and may cause a reduction in hearing. Although the hearing loss may be temporary, the reduction in hearing can affect how a child hears speech sounds and how they process language. Without treatment, this can lead to delays in language development, speech and phonological deficits, as well as reading and learning problems in the classroom. Many dyslexia diagnoses are related to delays in listening and processing language and can be traced back to a history of ear infections within the first three years of a child’s life.

Frequent ear infections can also impact a child’s ability to attend to tasks in class and follow directions. A child may present with normal hearing when checked by the pediatrician; however, he may experience difficulty hearing and understanding speech. Students diagnosed with auditory processing disorders (APD) often have a history of frequent ear infections. They may have trouble processing complex (two or more) instructions and may appear to only listen when they want to (selective listeners.) APD is often confused with other disorders such as ADHD, language impairment, learning disabilities, social and emotional delays or cognitive deficits.

What can parents do?

If you are concerned about your child’s hearing, speech and language or learning development, talk to your pediatrician. He/she can refer you to an audiologist for further assessment. Audiologists are healthcare professionals who provide care in the prevention, identification, diagnosis, and treatment of hearing, balance, and other auditory disorders for people of all ages. An audiological evaluation (conducted by an audiologist) can determine hearing sensitivity and assess the function of the middle ear. A speech and language assessment may also be recommended to determine areas of weakness. To find an audiologist or speech language pathologist in your area, use ASHA ProFind or contact Having Our Say.

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