Hearing loss in babies and children

Infants and children can have temporary or permanent hearing loss that may vary from slight to profound in its severity.

Key points

  1. The most common reason for hearing loss in children is middle ear inflammation (otitis media) or blocked ear canals. A smaller number are born with permanent congenital hearing loss.
  2. Early diagnosis is important because hearing loss can affect learning, concentration and communication.
  3. For this reason, a newborn hearing test is offered to all babies within the first month of life. Make sure your baby has this simple test.
  4. As a parent, you are the person most likely to notice if your child has a hearing problem. Read the signs to look out for below.
  5. Talk to your nurse or doctor if you think your child is not hearing well.

What causes hearing loss in babies and children?

The most common reason for hearing loss in children is middle ear inflammation (otitis media) or blocked ear canals. This:

  • may or may not be due to infection
  • interferes with the conduction of sound to the inner ear
  • is called glue ear if there is a long-term build-up of thick or sticky fluid behind the eardrum
  • may be accompanied by visible secretions leaking from the ear.

A smaller number – up to 170 babies every year in New Zealand – are born with permanent congenital hearing loss.

How is hearing loss in babies and children diagnosed?

If a child cannot hear properly this can affect learning, concentration and communication. Therefore, it's important to detect all hearing loss as early as possible, ideally in the first few months. Currently, many hearing problems in children are not picked up until about 3 years of age.

Research from the Ministry of Health shows that if hearing loss is diagnosed early and you make use of the options to restore their hearing, your child is likely to have improved language, learning and social development.

Newborn hearing screening programme

For this reason, a newborn hearing test is offered to all babies within the first month of life. Make sure your baby has this simple test. Ask your midwife, Plunket nurse or GP if there are any delays. 

Read more about the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening Programme from the National Screening Unit NZ.

Test your child's hearing

As a parent, you are the person most likely to notice if your child has a hearing problem. The sooner you discover this, the sooner your child can be tested further and treated if necessary.

The checklists below, which are only a guide, can alert you to potential problems with your child's hearing. If you are worried, print out the checklist, take it to your doctor or nurse and ask about getting your child's hearing tested.

At 4–6 weeks: When there is a sudden loud noise, does your baby...

  • jump or blink?
  • stir in their sleep?
  • stop sucking for a moment?
  • look up from sucking?
  • cry?

At 8–10 weeks: When there is a sudden loud noise, does your baby...

  • jump or blink?
  • stir in their sleep?
  • stop sucking for a moment?
  • look up from sucking?
  • cry?

At 3–4 months: Does your baby…

  • blink or cry when there is a sudden noise?
  • stop crying or sucking when you talk?
  • wake or stir to loud sounds?
  • coo or smile when you talk?
  • turn their eyes toward voices?
  • seem to like a musical toy?
  • stop moving when there is a new sound?
  • seem to know your voice?

At 5–7 months: Does your baby...

  • turn toward a sound or someone speaking?
  • cry when there is a sudden noise?
  • like music?
  • make lots of different babbling sounds?
  • sometimes copy sounds you make?

At 9–12 months: Does your baby ...

  • respond to their own name?
  • look around to find new sounds, even quiet sounds?
  • understand 'no' and 'bye-bye'?
  • listen when people talk?
  • like copying sounds?
  • use babbling that sounds like real speech?
  • try to talk back when you talk?

At 15–18 months: Does your child…

  • point to people and things they know when asked to?
  • copy or repeat simple words or sounds?
  • understand things like ‘come here’?
  • use their voice to get attention?
  • say 2 or 3 words?
  • listen when people talk?

At 2–3 years: Does your child…

  • do 2 things when asked, like ‘get the ball and bring it here’?
  • repeat what you say? continually learn new words?
  • say simple sentences with 2 or more words in them?
  • use many words that non-family members can understand?
  • speak clearly so that everyone can understand?
  • ask lots of ‘what’ or ‘why’ questions?

At 5 years: Does your child…

  • tell a long, clear story about things they have done?
  • speak well, with only a few sounds wrong, like ‘r’ or ‘s’?
  • know what things are for (like hat, apple or plate)?
  • like books and being read to?
  • understand most of what you say?

Source: The WellChild/Tamariki Ora My Health Book HealthEd, NZ, 2010

Talk to your nurse or doctor if you think your child is not hearing well.

Read more about testing for hearing loss in children.

Learn more

Newborn hearing screening Ministry of Health, NZ
Universal Newborn Hearing Screening Programme National Screening Unit, NZ
Hearing and vision checks for babies KidsHealth, NZ
Hearing and vision checks for preschool children KidsHealth, NZ
Hearing and vision checks for school-age children KidsHealth, NZ
Free hearing checks for children Ministry of Health, NZ
Equipment for children and young people who are Deaf or have hearing loss Ministry of Health, NZ
Cochlear implants Ministry of Health, NZ
Education for children with hearing loss Ministry of Health, NZ
Hearing health checklist NZ Audiology Society

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team .