Impact of Frequent Ear Infections (Otitis Media) on Speech and Language Development

Ear infections are one of the most prevalent illnesses for children between birth and three years of age. During this early stage in development, children’s ear structures are still maturing, which increases the risk for ear infections. An ear infection can cause fluid to collect and to become infected in the middle part of the ear (otitis media). Although ear infections are common and can be benign, long-term and recurrent ear infections can cause hearing complications, which can lead to speech and language delays.

What are common symptoms of ear infections and fluid in the middle ear (Otitis Media)?

  • Tugging or pulling at the ear
  • Increase in crying
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Fever
  • Unexplained irritability
  • Difficulty keeping balance when running or jumping
  • Poor sleep
  • Inattentiveness
  • Not responding to sounds
  • Asking What? Repeatedly
  • Turning the TV or radio volume louder than usual
  • Delayed speech and language development

How can ear infections affect speech?

Children first learn to speak and understand words by hearing other people talk. During a child’s first three years of life, communication development is at its peak; children are hearing modeled sounds and are learning how to form the sounds needed for speech. When a child experiences an ear infection, the fluid in the ear blocks or muffles the auditory information entering the ear, making it difficult for the child to hear. Consequently, the child receives inconsistent auditory input and misses out on information important for speech and language development. Children may not hear specific speech sounds, word endings (past tense or plural words), or may “tune out” language because it is too difficult for them to hear and interpret.

The American Speech, Language, and Hearing Association (ASHA) supports the facts that chronic ear infections can impact a child’s speech and language development.

What can parents do to help?

Ear infections require immediate medical treatment. Parents should monitor their child’s ear infections by recording how many occur and for how long they persist. Parents are encouraged to bring their child to see a pediatrician for medical check-ups when they recognize the symptoms of an ear infection. If ear infections persist, parents must consult a pediatrician or an otolaryngologist (ENT). An audiologist and a speech-language pathologist will need to be consulted if hearing damage is suspected.