How Hearing Impacts Learning


According to Dr Vincent Iannelli of the American Association of Paediatrics,
50% of children under the age of 12 months will experience at least one episode of middle ear infection (otitis media), and between the ages of one and three, 35% of children will have repeated episodes.

When we consider how important hearing is to language development and learning, it is staggering to imagine that many children will spend months of their formative years in a murky silence… not understanding clearly what is being said to them…

What is Middle Ear Infection?

Middle ear infection is caused by fluid build up on the middle ear, which affects the ear’s ability to process sound properly. It’s one thing to know this and another to understand what this actually means for your child.

To get an idea of how a child with middle ear-infection hears, put your hands over your ears tightly and ask another adult to read to you. It is really difficult to hear that person, especially if they aren’t facing you and even more when there are background noises or other distractions occurring. 

Middle ear infection can be caused by a common cold, allergies or irritants such as cigarette smoke – and it can happen to any child.

How Middle Ear Infection Impacts Language Development

Middle ear infections affect your child’s ability to hear high-frequency sounds such as consonants, and especially those consonants at the end of words. So, for example, you might say ‘bat’ but your child hears ‘back‘. He or she will also struggle to hear short words such as ‘to’, ‘but’ or ‘and’.

Living in this murky and muffled world is obviously frustrating for children, and they can often become tired or just plain bored with trying to understand what on earth you’re trying to say. It just becomes too difficult, or even impossible, to focus on the finer details and nuances that makes language what it is. And of course, these finer details are so important because they can change the whole meaning of a sentence.

This has obvious and serious affects on language development, resulting in speech delays, problems with focusing attention, poor self-esteem, social problems, reading problems, and inability to follow instructions.

The real life implications of these delays is a child who is often ‘left behind’ in social settings. Older children (over the age of three years) who have experienced frequent episodes of these infections when they were younger often don’t add the detail at the end of words, such as final consonants, past tense or plurals.

These infections often go ‘unheard’

What often happens with middle ear infections is that sometimes it doesn’t present with pain, so your child will not even indicate that there is something wrong. Your child cannot hear properly, but they don’t have a big enough frame of reference to understand that they’re not hearing properly…

Another misconception is that once it a cold or allergy is treated, the infection goes away. The truth of the matter is that the fluid can remain in the ear, affecting hearing, for up to six weeks after an infection or cold clears.

Because of this, it is important to know and look out for the signs that your child may have middle ear infection or still has fluid on the ear.

Symptoms of Middle Ear Infection

  • Ear aches or draining of the ears
  • Fever
  • Partial loss of hearing
  • Different responses to speech and everyday sounds
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Irritability
  • Rubbing or pulling on ears
  • Having difficulty with balance
  • Turning the TV or radio up louder than usual
  • Frequent need to have directions and information repeated
  • Talking less than usual
  • Unclear speech
  • Using gestures rather than talking
  • Delayed speech and language development

How to prevent Middle Ear Infection

  • Avoid irritants such as cigarette smoke and allergens
  • Consider a day care solution with fewer than six children
  • Always wash hands and keep toys (especially those that are put in a child’s mouth) clean
  • Breastfeeding, even if only for a few weeks, makes a baby less prone to these infections
  • Don’t overuse antibiotics, since this can breed ever-resistant bacteria
  • Allow plenty of fresh air in the home to avoid air-borne germs
  • Consult a nurse or doctor about available vaccines
  • Don’t put your child to bed with a bottle because the liquid can leak out and go into the small tube leading to the middle ear

The reason we believe this post is so important is because middle ear infection can often go unoticed – or when it is noticed, it is considered to be ‘just one of those things’. It really important to ensure that your child is treated, and that as a parent, you know that recurrent infections can have a major impact on your child’s ability to hear for long periods of time.

In our next post, we will be looking at an ’emergency kit’ should your child have middle ear infection. What you can do maximise his ability to hear and ensure that he’s not left behind in a ‘murky’ and silent world.

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better… we do better

Comments? Please email

*Practica Parents: We learn a great deal about typical development from those children who do not develop typically… Creating an ideal environment for development entails a ‘recipe’ with certain key ingredients – and we know which ingredients play which role when we look at what happens when one of them is missing. We hope that this post motivates our Practica Parents to have a new appreciation for the Group 4 Activities in the Parents’ Guide, which are focused on developing listening skills in children.

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