Fast facts

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Over 300 babies are born with hearing loss in Australia each year1

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By the time children reach school-age this number doubles2

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Approximately 4,000 Australian children under six years old have a significant permanent hearing loss3

What is childhood hearing loss?

Hearing loss can happen in children at any age. In some cases, a child’s hearing can change gradually, often without anyone noticing. If a baby, toddler or child is unable to hear sounds that are below a particular level, they may be diagnosed with a hearing loss. The lowest threshold of sound is about 20 decibels, which is equivalent to a tap running or whispers. The hearing loss may be in one ear, known as unilateral, or in both ears, referred to as bilateral. Early diagnosis and specialised early intervention help children develop age-appropriate milestones – whatever the level of hearing loss. By acting early, it also reduces the likelihood of kids having speech and language delays, learning difficulties, behavioural problems and the need for increased support in later years.

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How common is hearing loss in kids?

One to two in every 1,000 babies born in Australia have hearing loss, which is about 300 babies each year.1 By the time children reach school-age, this number doubles.2

Signs of hearing loss in babies and toddlers

Whilst all babies in Queensland have the free newborn hearing screening at birth, sometimes they can pass this test and then show signs of hearing loss as they get older. As children grow and develop, they reach typical milestones which can be used as a guide to determine if they are showing signs of hearing loss.

  • Responds to own name
  • Vocalises when alone, with single vowel sounds and babbling
  • Maintains eye contact; responds in different ways to different people
  • Responds to simple directions, e.g. “No”, “Bye-bye” and “Sit down”
  • Begins to produce some simple words and sounds of common animals/objects/vehicles
  • Follows one familiar direction
  • Understands family members’ names
  • Understands action words (such as ‘run’ and ‘sit’) and prepositions (such as ‘in’ and ‘under’)
  • Uses 100 to 500 words; two-word phrases; 50 per cent intelligible in speech
  • Identifies picture in book when named
  • Points to an object described
  • Uses 300 to 600 words; two-to-three-word sentences; 70 per cent intelligible in connected speech
  • Counts to two

Signs of hearing loss in children

There are a number of different indications of hearing loss to look out for in babies, toddlers and young children which may vary slightly depending on their age, including:

  • Concerns around participation, following directions or responding to questions
  • Speech or language delay or differences when compared with typically hearing siblings or friends
  • Trouble understanding speech or following directions, especially when there is background noise
  • The child says “What?” or “Huh?” often
  • Not reacting to loud sounds
  • Unsure of which direction a sound has come from
  • Child wants the volume turned up on the TV or other devices when compared with rest of the family
  • Difficulty hearing when on the phone
  • Overtired or fatigued after a day at kindergarten, childcare or school
  • Behavioural or attention problems at home or in the classroom
  • Experiencing learning difficulties
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Diagnosing children with hearing loss

We are specialists in children’s hearing. There are a number of hearing tests suitable for newborn babies, toddlers and school age children undertaken by our trained audiologists, including:  

At birth: Newborn hearing screen

In Queensland, free newborn hearing screening is offered to babies born in public and private hospitals. This screen uses small sensor pads placed on the baby’s head to record their brain’s response to sounds which are played into their ears via earphones.

From birth: Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR)

For young babies, diagnostic testing is undertaken while they are asleep, known as an Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR). This pain-free test is typically done on babies from one month old. It uses electrodes placed on a baby’s head to record tiny responses from their hearing nerves.

Six months – three years old: Visual Reinforcement audiometry

Visual Reinforcement Orientation Audiometry (VROA) is a ‘puppet test’ which is often used with children aged between six months and three years. This involves the child learning to turn towards a speaker when a loud sound is presented. When the child responds, a puppet is shown as a reward. Once a child has learnt to turn to the sound at louder levels, the softest sound they can hear can be checked. VROA is used until the time when a child’s ability to concentrate enables them to move on to play audiometry, usually around two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half years old.

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Three years and older: Play audiometry

Play audiometry can be used for children between two and a half or three to five years of age. This requires the child to listen for whistles or beeps while wearing headphones or ear inserts and respond by performing a fun task such as putting a coin in a piggy bank or a piece in a puzzle. Making a “game” of hearing tests keeps the child’s interest and enables a full picture of their hearing in around 30 minutes.

Any age: Tympanometry

Tympanometry is a test that uses pressure to assess how well a child’s ear drum is moving. This involves putting a small plug in the child’s ear and varying the pressure in the ear canal to check for any congestion or fluid behind the eardrum.

Five years and older: Hearing test

Once children are about five years of age, they’re shown how to press a button or raise their hand when they hear a sound during their hearing test – similar to a standard hearing test for adults.

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What happens if my child is diagnosed with hearing loss?

If your baby or child is diagnosed with hearing loss, the journey can feel challenging and daunting. The good news is, thanks to world-class hearing technology, coupled with our specialist type of speech therapy support, called listening and spoken language therapy, children can grow up hearing and speaking just like their siblings and friends. In fact, most children with hearing loss who receive intervention before 12 months of age develop age-appropriate speech and language skills by the time they’re three years old.3

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FAQs

The main causes of hearing loss can be linked to medical conditions, however in many cases there is no known cause.

Sensorineural hearing loss is a permanent type of hearing loss caused by damage to the ear cells within the inner ear, known as the cochlea.

Conductive hearing loss results from an issue that happens within the middle ear and/or the outer ear.

The difference between severe and profound deafness is in the amount of hearing that remains. With severe hearing loss, understanding everyday speech is a struggle and speech will need to be very loud to be heard, whereas with profound hearing loss only extremely loud speech or sounds will be heard.

Ear infections like glue ear (or otitis media) can significantly impact a child’s ability to hear clearly, and in some cases can cause a temporary hearing loss.

Hearing aids may help if you have a hearing loss, as they are made to amplify your existing hearing. If hearing aids are worn consistently, they can help to actively stop further deterioration of your hearing by keeping the brain’s auditory pathways stimulated.  

A cochlear implant can help with hearing loss. Acting early and seeking specialist support is key, regardless of what type of hearing loss you have to make sure your hearing loss is not limiting you.

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References

1 Queensland Health. (2020). Screening Protocols and Guidelines 2016 V2. https://www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/PDF/healthy-hearing/2017-newborn-prot-guide.pdf

 2 Deloitte Access Economics. (2017). The social and economic cost of hearing loss in Australia. Hearing Care Industry Association. http://www.hcia.com.au/hcia-wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Social-and-Economic-Cost-of-Hearing-Health-in-Australia_June-2017.pdf

3 Hearing Australia. (2021). Demographic Details of Young Australians aged less than 26 years with a hearing loss, who have been fitted with a hearing aid or cochlear implant at 31 December 2020. https://hearing.com.au/HearingAustralia/media/assets/Documents/2020-Demographics-of-Aided-Young-Australians-at-31-December-2020.pdf

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