Babies are such amazing creatures! They begin life with only cries and kicks, and before we know it they are walking and talking. The process of how children learn language has been of interest for centuries. There have been all kinds of theories on how children seem to move from being “blank slates” to holding conversations in a few short years, especially when it seems to be so difficult for adults to learn a second language in that same span of time. Part of the answer is that children seem to be pre-programmed to look for patterns in the information they hear and to attach meaning to those patterns. There is even evidence that hearing in utero leads to recognition of sound patterns for newborns!
When the same combination of sounds seems to happen frequently and be connected to direct adult attention, that pattern gradually becomes recognizable to the baby as her name. Babies recognize general patterns of rhythm and pitch first, from the classic “uh oh!” as an object drops to the patterns of “peek-a-boo!” Infants begin to recognize their names, as well as “mommy” and “daddy” as early as 6 months of age – long before they are able to say them. It is a process that happens with such regularity that we begin to see it as ordinary! But what do we do when it doesn’t happen that way?
Hearing loss is the most common issue at birth and one that often changes over time. In fact, most children have some degree of hearing loss during their formative years, usually from recurring ear infections. But when children can’t hear those early patterns in speech, or if they hear them inconsistently or in an altered form, their language development can suffer. A hearing loss that remains undiagnosed and untreated can result in a permanent language gap that will affect social skills, literacy, and academic progress long-term. Even a hearing loss in only one ear has been shown to increase the likelihood of repeating a grade in school tenfold.
So what’s a parent to do? Pay attention to any concern about your child’s hearing, and follow up! The first report you will get is the newborn hearing screen through the state’s Early Hearing Detection and Intervention program (EHDI). You get lots of paperwork when you have a newborn, but this screening report is important! Pay attention to that screening report, and if your child does not pass, follow up right away! Pay attention to your baby’s responses to words and sounds, and ask your doctor (early and often) if you have a concern. Pay attention to the symptoms of ear infections, and follow through consistently with your doctor’s directions. Don’t be afraid if your child needs amplification – current technology in hearing aids has come as far as cell phone technology! They even have remote controls and Bluetooth connections (not to mention cool colors and decorations from Mickey Mouse to Spiderman)!
May is National Hearing and Speech Month; it is the perfect opportunity to take another look at your child’s language development. If you have a concern, make an appointment to get your child’s hearing screened today!
Teri Ouellette, MS Ed, LSLS Cert AVEd
St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf