Best of Hearing and Kids: Hearing Loss in Children Is a Neurological Emergency

While I am taking a week off during the holidays, I hope you enjoy this top blog from 2015.

Hearing loss is the most common disability of children, worldwide. Every year, 670,000 children are born with hearing loss. Hearing loss cannot be viewed in isolation. Hearing loss causes problems for auditory brain development. When a child with hearing loss is born, she has already had 20 weeks of auditory deprivation.


Normal-hearing babies

When babies with normal hearing are born, they have been listening to their mother’s voice and the voices of others around their mother. They can tell the difference between mom’s voice and dad’s voice. They recognize inflection, and can tell which words are important and separate them from words that are used to connect the important words. They recognize emotion in voices, and music they heard during pregnancy. Although the sounds they hear are softer than those heard outside the womb, and are a little muffled, they provide significant input to the auditory brain.


Babies with hearing loss

Baby with hearing loss are born with brain deprivation. We need to move quickly to reduce the effect of this delay. The critical thing to remember is that there is a short window for developing the auditory brain. If children do not get the opportunity to hear during the first 3-3 ½ years, they will lose that opportunity. We are not just talking about developing language (which is certainly critical), but also about literacy. Reading is in the same part of the brain as literacy, so if we want children to succeed, we need to build the auditory brain early.


Normal-hearing babies who are not exposed to language

Lack of exposure to auditory stimulation effects everyone’s brain. Normal-hearing children who live in homes where their parents do not talk with them will also show a lack of auditory brain development. Hart and Risley (1995) have demonstrated that the number of words heard directly affects both the number of words in a child’s vocabulary and the child’s IQ at age 3 years. Children who heard 30,142 words in a 14-hour day had a vocabulary of 1,116 words and an IQ of 117 at age three years, while children who heard 8,624 words in a day had a vocabulary of 525 words and an IQ of 79.


So what should we be doing?

Every child needs good exposure to language. While professionals have a role, the most important people in providing language stimulation to children are their parents. Everyone who works with children needs to help parents understand that EVERY child needs a lot of auditory input. Parents need to be encouraged to talk, talk, talk, read, and sing to their children. Ten books a day should be the goal. We need to help parents learn how to talk to their children, and, most importantly, how to enjoy talking to their children. Children with reduced language have reduced economic possibilities – not just children with hearing loss, all children.


Empowering Parents

Ears are the pathway to the brain, the brain is the organ of hearing. Everyone needs to understand this in order to do the necessary work. Just as parents are the people who need to feed their children and keep them warm, parents are also the people who have to give children power to use their brain. We need to educate parents of children with hearing loss and parents of normal-hearing children about this responsibility. If children can learn to listen and talk they will be able to

  • Talk to people around them and learn from them
  • Hear and learn great ideas
  • Read well and learn about the world
  • Receive a good education
  • Have life choices


The ability to get a good education and to increase life choices has the added advantage of reducing poverty. These are not minor issues. They have the possibility of making major changes in a child’s life. Let’s be sure we give families the opportunity to do what needs to be done.

About Jane Madell

Jane Madell has a consulting practice in pediatric audiology. She is an audiologist, speech-language pathologist, and LSLS auditory verbal therapist, with a BA from Emerson College and an MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin. Her 45+ years experience ranges from Deaf Nursery programs to positions at the League for the Hard of Hearing (Director), Long Island College Hospital, Downstate Medical Center, Beth Israel Medical Center/New York Eye and Ear Infirmary as director of the Hearing and Learning Center and Cochlear Implant Center. Jane has taught at the University of Tennessee, Columbia University, Downstate Medical School, and Albert Einstein Medical School, published 5 books, and written numerous books chapters and journal articles, and is a well known international lecturer.