Ear infections are incredibly common throughout the first three years of life. Most babies will have at least one before their first birthday. The majority of ear infections can be treated with antibiotics, and young children typically grow out of them as their ears develop. However, it’s important to be aware of the link between chronic ear infections and speech/language development.
What is an Ear Infection?
An ear infection, formally referred to as otitis media (OM) by doctors, is when fluid collects in the middle ear cavity and it becomes inflamed.
Because babies’ and toddlers’ ears are still developing, ear infections often occur throughout early childhood. The Eustachian tube, which helps drain fluid from the middle ear, hasn’t yet tilted and is much smaller in children than adults. This is why fluid can easily accumulate in the middle ear and cause recurring ear infections.
Ear Infections and Speech/Language Development
Simply put, ear infections cause hearing impairment, and hearing impairment can make it difficult for children to acquire speech and language skills. If you’ve ever tried to listen to someone talk when your ears are clogged with water, it’s easy to see how that muffled sound can be an obstacle to language acquisition. While these hearing impairments may seem mild, they can significantly impact a young child’s speech and language skills.
In one study, kids between the ages of 6 and 8 years old (with and without a history of chronic ear infections in early childhood) were tested on phonological awareness, semantic knowledge, narration, and reading ability. Results showed that children with a history of ear infections tended to score lower on these tests than children without a history of ear infections.
What To Do if You Have Concerns
If your child is prone to ear infections and you’re concerned about their speech and language development, be sure to consult your pediatrician. Your doctor will be able to assess if their ear infections are impacting speech and language development and recommend a pediatric speech-language pathologist if necessary.
It can also be helpful to be more aware of your child’s hearing impairment when they have ear infections, regardless if they happen frequently or not. For instance, try to keep background noise to a minimum, speak clearly, and make sure they can see your facial expressions and mouth movements when speaking. Since this is such a critical time for language learning, these small actions can make a big impact.
Remember, just because the scientific community discovers a link, it doesn’t mean that every child with frequent ear infections will have language delays. It’s just important to be mindful of these connections so parents and caregivers can intervene early and get children the treatment they need to succeed!