Childhood hearing impairment can lead to difficulties with learning, language acquisition (understanding and communicating), and speech development (producing the sounds of speech, mastering the rhythms of speech, etc). Around the world, one in every 750 children has moderate, severe, or profound hearing impairment; 80% of these children are born with the impairment. In the United States, guidelines recommend that all newborns be screened for hearing impairment by the age of three months.

In an article published in the May 18, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association , researchers investigated whether early detection of childhood hearing impairment had any effect on a child’s speech and language skills later in childhood. They found that children whose hearing impairments were confirmed by the age of nine months had significantly higher language skills at the age of eight years than children who were diagnosed with hearing impairment after nine months. Early detection of hearing impairments, however, did not significantly affect speech skills.

About the Study

The researchers identified 120 children (average age 7.9 years) in southern England with permanent hearing impairment in both ears. Sixty-one of the children had been born during a period of universal newborn screening and 59 had been born during a period of no screening. Children were classified as “early confirmation” if their hearing loss had been confirmed by the age of nine months. The children’s primary caregiver completed a survey of their child’s speech skills. In addition, the researchers assessed the children’s receptive and expressive language abilities.

Children born during a period of newborn screening were significantly more likely to have had their hearing impairment confirmed by nine months than children born outside a period of newborn screening. Children who received early confirmation of hearing impairment had significantly higher expressive and receptive language scores than children whose hearing impairment was confirmed after nine months. Newborn screening and early confirmation of hearing impairment did not have a significant effect on speech.

This study is limited by the researchers’ indirect measurement of speech skills, which were assessed by the children’s caregivers, rather than by the researchers themselves.

How Does This Affect You?

This study found that early detection of childhood hearing impairment significantly improves children’s language abilities, but appears to have no effect on their speech skills. Screening programs prior to nine months of age are worthwhile. If you’re pregnant or have a newborn child, make sure he or she has been, or will be, evaluated for hearing impairment.

As soon as a child is diagnosed with a hearing impairment, many steps can be taken to help with speech and language development. Children can be fitted with hearing aids, if appropriate, and can begin working with a speech and language therapist. Even children with profound hearing impairment can learn to more fully understand language (through the use of visual cues, for example) and to communicate effectively through a combination of oral and sign language.