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Information about deafness

Photo: How to identify your child is deaf

Deafness and hearing problems are different for each individual and no deaf child is the same. The way deafness affects a child depends on a range of different factors, including:

  • what type of hearing loss they have
  • what caused their hearing loss
  • how old they were when they were diagnosed with a hearing loss
  • the level of hearing loss they have
  • whether the hearing loss is in one or both ears
  • the way they prefer to communicate
  • the level of communication skills they have.

There are different levels of hearing loss. In medical terms, these are: mild deafness, moderate deafness, severe deafness and profound deafness. It is rare for a child not to hear anything at all. Deafness can affect the loudness and clarity of sounds, noises or speech. Even if voices are amplified (made louder), a deaf child may have difficulty understanding them.

More information about deafness

Signs of deafness

It’s important to spot hearing loss as soon as possible. The sooner a child is identified, the sooner they can be supported to develop language and communication skills.

Some signs that could indicate your baby is deaf include if they don't:

  • respond to sounds, music or voices
  • react to loud sounds in response to a loud sound

In addition, other signs that could indicate a child is deaf are if they:

  • strain to hear
  • appear very watchful
  • misunderstand things you say
  • withdraw from social situations
  • ask you to repeat things
  • tell you they are deaf
  • use sign language

Cause of deafness

There are many reasons why a child can be born deaf or become deaf early in life. It is not always possible to identify the reason.

We list many of the common reasons below, including information on possible causes that happen before a child is born and those that happen at birth or afterwards:

Causes before birth (pre-natal)

Many children are born deaf because of a genetic reason. Deafness can be passed down in families even though there appears to be no family history of deafness. Sometimes the gene involved may cause additional disabilities or health problems.

Deafness can also be caused by complications during pregnancy. Illnesses such as rubella, cytomegalovirus (CMV), toxoplasmosis and herpes can cause a child to be born deaf. There is also a range of medicines, known as ototoxic drugs, which can damage the hearing system of a baby before birth.

Causes in infancy (post-natal)

As with pre-natal causes, there are a number of reasons why a child may become deaf after they are born. Being born prematurely can increase the risk of being deaf or becoming deaf.

Premature babies are often more prone to infections that can cause deafness. They may also be born with severe jaundice or experience a lack of oxygen at some point. Both of these can cause deafness.

In early childhood there is a range of things that can be responsible for a child becoming deaf. Infections like meningitis, measles and mumps can cause deafness. Ototoxic drugs, used to treat other types of infections in babies, can also be a cause.

Occasionally deafness is caused by an injury to the head or exposure to loud noise. These can cause damage to the hearing system.

Type of deafness

The main types of deafness are conductive and sensori-neural. If you are told that your child has mixed deafness, it means that your child has a combination of both conductive and sensori-neural deafness.

Conductive deafness/Otitis Media

Conductive deafness or Otitis Media is the most common type. It means that sounds cannot pass efficiently through the outer and middle ear to the cochlea and auditory nerve. This is most often caused by fluid building up in the middle ear.

This condition is called Otitis Media with Effusion (OME) and can be referred to as 'glue ear' in some countries. Most conductive deafness is temporary but there is a chance that it can be permanent.

Sensori-neural deafness

Sensori-neural deafness is caused by a fault in the inner ear or auditory nerve. This is sometimes called ‘nerve deafness’ but this term is usually not completely accurate. Most sensori-neural deafness is caused by a problem in the cochlea. Commonly, this is because the hair cells of the cochlea are not working properly. Sensori-neural deafness is permanent.

Mixed deafness

Mixed deafness is a combination of both conductive and sensori-neural deafness. For example a child may have glue ear and at the same time have a problem in their cochlea.