Does my child have glue ear and will it affect his speech and language development?

19 October, 2018

What is glue ear?

Glue ear (or otitis media with effusion: OME) is a build-up of fluid in the middle ear that can often cause problems with hearing. According to NHS figures, it is estimated that 1 in 5 children around the age of two will be affected by glue ear at any given time and about 8 in 10 will have had it at least once by the age of ten years. As you can see, this is a widespread condition, yet it doesn’t lead to any major problems for the majority of children.

Which children are more at risk of glue ear?

Many things can contribute to the onset and persistence of glue ear. Your child is more likely to suffer from the condition is they:

  • Have a genetic condition such as Down’s Syndrome
  • Have a cleft palate
  • Are exposed to cigarette smoke
  • Are bottle-fed
  • Have particular allergies
  • Have a recent history of colds and flu

Will glue ear affect my child’s speech and language development?

A prolonged period of time with reduced hearing can affect children’s speech development. If you put your fingers in your ears, this is what the world sounds like to your child – everything is muffled. 

Hearing the Sounds of Speech:

Speech sounds occur at different frequencies. A child with mild hearing loss may be able to hear most sounds, but may miss out on hearing several higher frequency speech sounds (e.g. p, k, f, th, s). This is likely to make it difficult for them to develop these sounds, and discriminate between some words e.g. cool vs pool, free vs three, fight vs kite.

What treatment is available?

In most cases, no treatment is required and the glue ear will resolve itself within 3 months. Alternatively, if the symptoms are persistent and the hearing loss is significantly affecting learning and development, surgical treatment may be offered in the form of grommets. Grommets are little, plastic tubes inserted into the eardrum which allow the fluid to drain. Grommets usually fall our after about 6 months to a year. Alternatively, an audiologist may recommend temporary hearing aids until the problem has resolved.

Will the use of grommets prevent language delay?

Although there is a growing consensus that OME can have negative effects on language development in young children, it has not yet been proven that this effect can be reversed by treatment with ventilating tubes.

How can I tell if my child is struggling to hear?

Your child might look as if they are “switched off” or ignoring you if they can’t see that you’re trying to talk to them. 

  • They might find it particularly hard to listen when it is noisy, for example, at nursery, in the park or out and about with traffic noise. 
  • You might notice that your child struggles to learn new sounds and words.
  • They may prefer to play alone as they find it difficult to join in with other children.
  • It may take a lot of effort for your child to concentrate on listening so they might get tired or distracted easily.

What can I do to help?

If your child is affected by glue ear, here are a few things you can do yourself to support your child’s language development.

  • Get down to their level as often as you can and get eye contact with your child before speaking to them. This lets them see your face so they can get lots of clues about what you are saying from the way your lips move and where you are looking. 
  • Reduce background noise as much as possible.
  • Make their teacher aware of your concerns and ask for them to sit at the front.
  • Make sure you have their attention before speaking to them, by saying their name and touching them if necessary.
  • Use gesture alongside language and encourage them to do the same.
  • If your child is struggling, use a shorter sentence. Repeat the main point again to make sure they have heard it. 
  • If your child says something in the wrong way, repeat it back the right way instead of correcting them. If your child says “dat a lil tat” you can say “yes, that’s a little cat.” Children learn speech sounds gradually. 
  • Ask your child to repeat back an instruction to check that they have heard it properly.

Why and when do I need to see a Speech and Language Therapist? 

As soon as you have noticed a problem, a Speech and Language Therapist will be able to assess and monitor your child’s development and give you some advice to help you support your child’s talking at home. Contact your local NHS therapist or give us a call for an informal chat.

Sarah Carroll