Ear Infections and Speech and Language Development

Ear infections can cause fluid in the middle ear (otitis media). Ear infections are one of the most common illnesses in children between birth and three years of age. Fluid in the middle ear prevents the ear from conducting sound properly. It can interfere with normal hearing. Even a mild, temporary hearing loss can delay the development of speech and language skills. Therefore, early recognition and treatment of otitis media is important.

Some of the common symptoms of ear infections and fluid in the middle ear are:

  • Earaches or draining of the ears
  • Fever
  • Partial loss of hearing
  • Different response to speech and everyday sounds
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Irritability
  • Rubbing or pulling at the ears
  • Having difficulty keeping balance, running, or jumping
  • Turning the television or radio up much louder than usual
  • Frequent need to have directions and information repeated
  • Talking less than usual or unclear speech
  • Using gestures rather than talking
  • Delayed speech and language development
  • The symptoms of serious ear infections and otitis media usually appear during or after a cold or respiratory infection, often during the winter months. Since fluid can collect in the middle ear without causing pain, children with otitis media may not complain about it. Parents may notice symptoms before the child does! If your child has recently had an ear infection, be alert for one or more of the above symptoms!

    When a child gets ear infections several times during a year, it is called recurrent otitis media. A preschool child with recurrent otitis media frequently experiences a temporary loss of hearing. The loss may continue for up to six weeks after the ear infection has healed. Such a hearing loss is described as "mild and fluctuating". But it may be a major cause of speech and language delay during preschool years.

    Communication development is at its peak from twelve months through four years of age. Fluctuating hearing loss during that time interferes with learning speech and language. Children who can not hear clearly may "tune out" everyday sounds - even your voice! If your child has fluid in the middle ear, similar words may sound the same. It is not surprising that final consonants, past tense, and plural word endings are often left off by children with recurrent otitis media. Since they don't hear these sounds when others talk, they don't learn how to say them properly.

    Children with recurrent otitis media over several months or years may develop:

  • Permanent hearing loss if left untreated
  • Speech and language loss
  • Problems focussing their attention
  • Problems with school work
  • Poor self esteem or Social problems
  • Parents can help by doing the following:

    1. Seek professional help. Prompt medical attention is very important. Contact your physician, pediatrician, otolaryngologist (ear nose and throat specialist), or an audiologist (specialist in testing hearing). Medical professionals are still debating which treatments are most effective. The two most common methods of treatment are the use of antibiotics to control the infection, and the placement of tubes in the ear to drain the fluid. The help of a Speech-Language Pathologist may also be needed.

    2. Be a good speech and language model. Talk about what your child is doing. Describe what your child sees. Expand your child's remark. Keep your language short, simple and direct.

    3. Structure the environment to help your child listen and learn:

  • Get your child's attention before you begin
  • Get down to your child's eye level.
  • Reduce background noise. Turn off the television and radio. Quiet other children in the room.
  • Use gestures and facial expressions to help convey your meaning.
  • Article based on excerpts from Parent Articles 1, "Otitis Media and Speech and Language Development," (1988).


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