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Recurrent Ear Infections and Speech Development

How many of our kids have had ear infections as babies? They are the worst, especially because they can’t tell you what’s wrong.

I want you to think about what happens to your hearing when you are underwater in a swimming pool. Can you hear clearly? Does everything sound muffled? That’s exactly what children hear when they have an ear infection, PLUS the added pain that comes along with it! Wouldn’t that be a miserable way to exist for about a week?

So if a child gets recurrent ear infections, will it impact their speech and language development?

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The Ear is a Complex Organ

Most people don’t realize how complex the ear really is! It’s made up of three main parts:

  1. Outer Ear
  2. Middle ear
  3. Inner Ear

The outer ear is basically what we can see. The middle ear contains the bones that move together to process sound and the inner ear is composed of mechanisms that transfer sound to our brains

Anatomy of the Ear

When infections happen, they typically occur in the middle ear, which doesn’t allow the sound to be processed and heard correctly. 

New Research Being Conducted

A study by the University of Western Sydney has revealed that recurring middle ear infections in early childhood can have a detrimental impact on language and literacy skill development in later life.

Study author, Dr Heather Winskel, from the University’s School of Psychology, says middle ear infection or otitis media (OM) is the most common childhood illness. It’s one of the main causes for children being hospitalized up until the age of 1. 

At least 70% of children are likely to experience at least one episode of otitis media before they are three-years-old and for many children it is a recurrent problem.

Dr Winskel

The project compared two groups of children aged between 6 and 8 years from schools across western Sydney – 43 children with an early history of repeated episodes of OM before the age of three and a control group of 43 children (children who did not have repeated ear infections) matched for chronological age, gender and socio-economic status.

The Findings

The research found that the children who had recurrent OM throughout that critical language period, scored lower on expressive and receptive language tests compared to their peers.

They were also noted to have difficulty with word recognition. This means, if you told your child to close their eyes and repeat a word back to you, the word wouldn’t be clear. This shows that damage has been done to the inner ear from the recurrent ear infections. 

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When Does Otitis Media Happen?

The peak incidence of OM occurs when children are between 6 and 18 months, which is the most critical period of language development, when the infant is tuning in to the speech sounds that characterise their native language. 

This process allows young children to break into the stream of speech and eventually map sound onto meaning. If they can’t hear correctly, that process will be broken. 

Dr Winskel says the findings support the view that if a child experiences OM during the crucial first years of life, it may have long-term effects on subsequent language and literacy development.

Please keep in mind – if your child gets tubes or has remediation for the ear infections, that will increase their ability to keep up with their speech and language development. The children that were observed in this study either received tubes later or never received them at all.

If you are concerned about the number of ear infections that your child is having, make sure you talk to your pediatrician to see if there are options available. 

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The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Blub Blub Inc. All content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgement, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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