How Ear Infections and Language Delays Connect

December 18, 2012 by Geoff Nixon

The Long-term Impact of Ear Infections or “Glue Ear”

Frequent ear infections make language hard to hear or make it sound “muddy.” This reduces the amount of language processing practice a child is getting in those all important early years. This is why ear infections and language delays are connected.

It starts with delayed language development and then later on, reading and classroom learning problems.  Many dyslexia diagnoses are traced back to  4-6 weeks of ear infections in the first three years of life.

Delayed Language

When fluid builds in the middle ear as a result of an ear infection (a condition commonly known as “glue ear”), the ear drum is prevented from vibrating normally, causing a reduction in hearing.

Periods of reduced hearing at an early age can have an impact on a child’s language development since children need to hear consistent and clear speech sounds in order to develop strong language abilities.

In young children, fluctuating hearing loss can affect speech clarity, causing language development to plateau. They may leave off the beginning and/or end of words and these articulation issues may persist even after the child’s hearing is corrected.

Learning Problems and “Selective Listening”

The reduction in hearing caused by an acute ear infection can make it harder for a student to listen in the classroom and to follow instructions.

Frequent ear infections at a young age can also have an  impact on the development of a child’s auditory pathways, making it difficult for them to process what they hear. This condition, referred to as an auditory processing deficit, becomes particularly apparent when a child starts school. This is the main connection between ear infections and language delays.

Students with auditory processing disorders typically have trouble processing two or more instructions or pieces of information and find it difficult to sustain attention in class. They are often referred to as “selective listeners” because it may appear as though they only listen when they want to. However, some sufferers find it difficult to hear in the presence of background noise, such as in the classroom or when they are watching television.

Reading Difficulties

The link between ear infections and language delays continues with reading. Children with delayed language processing disorder caused by “Glue Ear” or ear infections find it hard to break words apart into phonemes, which is required for reading.  Therefore, most children who have a history of ear infections in early life should be considered at-risk readers until they prove otherwise by reading with full comprehension in middle school.

What Can Parents Do?

If you are concerned about your child’s speech and/or learning development, an assessment by an Audiologist is recommended to see if ear infections may be responsible. Audiologists possess the knowledge and equipment to thoroughly examine the ear canal and the functioning of the ear drum to establish if your child is suffering from hearing loss or the effects of multiple ear infections.

Based on the assessment outcomes, the Audiologist may then recommend further medical investigations. You should then consider speech pathology and auditory processing disorder treatment.