Infants and toddlers get sick often. It happens, and it is generally a good thing that it does, as their little bodies cope and build immunity. Having ear infections often results from fluid build-up in the middle ears (the name of this infection is “otitis media”). The middle ear is the little cavern just inside our heads that houses the little bones that transport sound to the hearing organ (cochlea) deeper inside the head. Keep in mind this is a very simplistic description of how things work, and that different types of infections affect different parts of the ear.
A little tube connecting each middle ear to the roof of the mouth drains fluid so that it doesn’t build up and get infected (this tube also functions to equalize pressure in the middle ear). So why does it get infected in little kids so often? This is largely because of a difference in the anatomy of a young child’s head. In kids, the drainage tube is set more horizontally, making it tougher for gravity to help drain the fluid. As we grow, our head structure changes the orientation of the tube to be angled down and away from the middle ear, letting gravity do its work to drain the fluid.
So how is this related to language development? When fluid builds up in the middle ear, it significantly slows down the movement of the ear drum itself and that of the little bones in the middle ear. This reduces the intensity and type of sound frequencies transported to the cochlea. When the information the cochlea is receiving is limited, the sounds processed by the brain are limited or very different in quality. The exposure to live speech sounds is fundamental to speech and language development. In the vast majority of cases, prolonged reduced exposure to live speech sounds affects language development (both speaking and understanding). The consequences of unidentified, untreated speech or language delays are many, and are discussed in many articles found at www.elginspeech.ca.
If your child gets frequent ear infections AND you notice that he or she is not speaking or understanding language like other kids his or her age, there is a reason for concern. Don’t “wait and see.” Talk with your family doctor to see what can be done medically or surgically about the fluid. At the same time, see an Audiologist and Speech-Language Pathologist right away (Audiologists are hearing specialists closely affiliated with SLPs). You do not have to wait for your doctor to take this step. Your Audiologist will identify your child’s specific hearing problems and your SLP will identify the specific speech and language problems. A therapy plan can then be made to put your child on the path to improvement.