Hearing aids are small, battery-powered devices that are worn on the ears to help children with permanent hearing loss hear more clearly. They pick up speech and other sounds through tiny built-in microphones, make them louder, and play them into a child’s ears. Modern hearing aids are “digital." This means that audiologists use computers to tell the digital chip inside of hearing aids how much loudness to add at different frequencies or pitches. Think of digital hearing aid “programming” like adjusting the bass or treble controls of your stereo rather than simply just turning the overall volume up or down. Hearing aids can improve the ability of a child with hearing loss to speak more clearly, communicate with friends and family, and understand their teachers at school.
There are several different types of hearing aids. The most common type of hearing aid for infants and children are those that hook behind-the-ears (BTEs). BTE hearing aids send sounds into the ears by attaching to earpieces that are custom-shaped to one’s ears. These custom earpieces are called earmolds. Earmolds need to be re-made as children’s ears grow. Because infants and young children grow rapidly, it is common for them to need three to four (sometimes more) sets of earmolds per year. If earmolds do not fit well, sound can leak out of the ears. Then hearing aids are not as helpful and can make a “whistling” sound.
Some children wear hearing aids that sit in-the-ears (ITE). ITE hearing aids are made out of a hard plastic and are custom shaped to fit a child’s ears. This custom shaping is similar to the custom earmolds that attach to BTE hearing aids. Because children’s ears grow quickly, ITE hearing aids are not a popular choice because a child would need to frequently send his or her hearing aids away to be re-shaped. ITEs are also not as popular because the hard plastic increases the risk of injury if a child’s bumps his or her head and breaks the hearing aid. BTEs tend to be more popular because custom earmolds can simply be changed out as a child grows. This makes sure that a child has a constant ability to hear their best.
Hearing aids come in different sizes. For example, behind-the-ear hearing aids range from about length of a small paper clip to a AA battery. Hearing aid size is not based on age or size of a child’s ear. Instead, size is chosen based on how much hearing loss a child has. Children with more hearing loss need more powerful hearing aids, which tend to be bigger in size.
An audiologist will recommend hearing aids when:
A child has a permanent hearing loss that cannot be corrected by medicine and/or surgery.
A child’s hearing loss is great enough that he or she cannot hear speech clearly and is at risk for delays in speech and language development, communication issues, and academic difficulties.
A child’s hearing loss is not so severe that even the most powerful hearing aids available would not be strong enough to help him or her ear more clearly.
The shape of a child’s ears can support hearing aids. Some ear deformities do not allow for hearing aids.
The typical goal for infants and children with hearing loss is to wear their hearing aids during all waking hours. This can be easier said than done. Some infants and children might have difficulty adjusting to wearing hearing aids because they do not like the feeling of them on their ears or because they are overwhelmed by all the new sounds they hear through them. If this is the case for your child, build goals with your audiologist to work toward hearing aid use during all waking hours. Be patient and persistent.
Hearing aid care typically centers on batteries and earmolds. Hearing aids tend to need new batteries every one to two weeks. Many infants and young children need several sets of earmolds per year. Earmolds tend to fit for longer periods of time when a child is around 8 to 10 years of age and ear growth slows down. Although hearing aids used to be easily damaged by water, most modern hearing aids are water-friendly. Some are splash-friendly and some can actually be fully submerged under water.