As parents, we watch for every milestone — whether you have an infant or school-aged child — with careful caution and hope. We want to ensure our children have the basics down, like eating, talking, and mobility of their hands and feet.
When issues do arise, it can be difficult to understand, and we might be tempted to play the blame game with ourselves.
But for children who may have any delay, such as with hearing or language, it’s important not to wait.
“When there are concerns, intervening early can help send the child on a trajectory for future success,” says Dr. Rebecca Mental, director of speech-language and learning services at the Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center (chsc.org).
It can happen at any age.
“It’s never too early,” says Dr. Maria O’Neil-Ruddock, director of the Community Center for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing at the Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center. She adds that it’s also never too late to get help. “We are still there to walk them through the journey and empower them in their lives.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, an estimated 3 in 1,000 U.S. infants are born each year with hearing loss thresholds in the mild to profound range in one or both ears, and at least another 3 in 1,000 will experience permanent hearing loss in later childhood.
“Early identification and appropriate early intervention are essential to ensure children with hearing loss achieve optimal language, cognition and socioemotional outcomes,” the AAP says.
When children are born in the hospital, they undergo a hearing screening shortly after birth. If they don’t pass, further evaluation is needed. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, parents might have missed out on these tests.
“Follow up testing is critical to identify a child who may have hearing loss ” says Dr. Bridgid Whitford, director of hearing services at Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center. “If that follow up is not completed, for whatever reason, including COVID 19, we know that we will miss identifying a child with hearing loss and they will not receive the early identification and intervention that is crucial for developing language.”
If a child needs to go back for testing, she suggests scheduling it as soon as possible. The hospital screening is a starting point, but identifying hearing loss comes from the diagnostic or follow up testing.
Whitford also advises caregivers to monitor their child’s development, including if the baby responds to voices, sounds or other noises. If there are concerns, schedule additional testing, as progressive hearing loss is rare, but can occur.
If there’s suspected “hearing loss or any other diagnosis, we panic (as parents),” O’Neil-Ruddock says. “Sometimes we withdraw from our children. (However,) making even more intentional interactions is so critical.”
Communicate in a different way with your child by engaging with them through body language.
Whitford advises to use facial expressions, eye contact, and moving your mouth so they can follow.
“(Even) before a parent starts to learn sign language, they can still communicate with their child. Use facial expressions and gestures so that the child can feel that communicative connection” Mental says.
O’Neil-Ruddock suggests that parents who are new to sign language, instead of learning on their own, work with a professional to help develop what the child needs to learn a comprehensive language system.
Communicating with your infants is an important part of their development.
Mental says to help build language skills and encourage communication between child and parent, try low-tech toys and imaginative play.
“There is never a wrong way to play, and parents should follow the child’s lead,” she says. “Narrating your day to your young child can also help build their communication skills. It’s important to note that the number of back and forth exchanges between a child and an adult are even more important than the number of words a child hears in a day. This can start early — when a baby babbles, the parent can make sounds back or give a verbal reply.”
Some parents might notice their child having difficulty with language as they grow.
“It’s never too early to raise concerns,” Mental says. “By age 2, if their vocabulary is 50 words or fewer, or if they are not talking or not attempting any verbal communication at all before age 2, don’t wait to get an evaluation.”
During the pandemic, families were more isolated, and children weren’t getting as many interactions, including being social with others.
“Those social engagements are critical for child development, language, and emotional regulation,” O’Neil-Ruddock says. “We are worried how far those children are behind and the long term impacts.”
If parents are concerned, they should seek out resources to help their children and get their questions answered, whether talking to their pediatrician or from programs such as Help Me Grow and the Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center.
“Don’t wait — evaluate,” Whitford says. “(Parents) are very in tune with their babies. If a caregiver has a gut feeling or any degree of concern, it’s much better to get it checked out. If there isn’t a delay, wonderful. If a delay is identified, interventions can begin to put your child on the road to long-term success.”