Sadly, many kids aren't diagnosed with hearing loss until age 2 -- which is way beyond the critical window for developing speech and language skills. Your child learns to speak correctly by hearing sounds around him and listening to your voice. If he can't hear during his first six months, he's missing an important opportunity. Children with a hearing impairment often learn new words more slowly than other children, understand and produce shorter sentences, have trouble with quiet speech sounds like the "s," "sh," "f," "t," and "k," and don't do as well academically.
While it's never too late to get help, experts say that it's ideal to start early intervention -- including speech and listening training -- before 6 months of age. With an early diagnosis and hearing aids or other interventions, most kids who are deaf or hard-of-hearing will develop language skills comparable with their peers by first grade. Children as young as 3 months can be fitted with hearing aids, and those with profound hearing loss can get a cochlear implant at age 1. Cochlear implants have been controversial within the deaf community because they try to "fix" the trait that's central to deaf culture. "Having known many deaf people, I used to be more wary of implants, but now I've seen how fantastic they can be for kids," says Dr. Friedman. Children who have hearing aids or cochlear implants usually go to mainstream schools, can speak relatively clearly, and are less isolated than those who rely only on sign language.
To make the best decision for your child, it's important to speak to doctors, audiologists, and other parents. "We have a whole 'new family' of people who've helped keep us informed, find schools, interview surgeons, and do anything necessary to help our son," says Beth Trama. Luca got a cochlear implant just a few months before his first birthday. Now 3 1/2, he's communicating well, attending nursery school, and, most important, says Trama, "He's a happy, spunky little kid."