Chances are there's an ear infection in your child's future. About half of all infants will have at least one by their first birthday. And according to experts, by age 3, that number jumps to 80 percent.
Some factors that make your child more prone to getting ear infections are out of your control. For example, being male (although doctors don't know why), living with more than one sibling (lots of germs), and having a family history of ear infections all raise the probability. But there are certain choices parents make that can help prevent this common ailment in babies and young children.
While there are no guarantees, taking the expert advice below just may lower your child's odds of ending up in the doctor's office. Here's what you can do:
Living with secondhand tobacco smoke can increase your child's risk for ear infections by up to 50 percent! Studies show that the particles in tobacco can congest the tube in the inner ear. This congestion prevents the tube from being able to drain fluid and sets a child up for an ear infection. Even if you only smoke outdoors, your baby can be exposed to those dust particles from your hair or your clothing.
"The more children there are in a room, the more germs and colds there will be for your child to catch," says Max M. April, MD, chair of the committee on pediatric otolaryngology for the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. "Although ear infections themselves aren't contagious, the upper respiratory illnesses that can lead to ear infections are.
Also, when your child is with a larger number of other kids, who are probably going to be taking a lot of antibiotics, she's more likely to be exposed to drug-resistant bacteria."
Long recognized as an immunity booster, breast milk can even protect children who are particularly susceptible to ear infections (such as those who've had three or more ear infections within six months), according to a study at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. This protection probably lasts well after a child has stopped breastfeeding as well, according to experts.
Binkies may introduce bacteria into the mouth, which can then travel to the ear. Research in Finland has found that if you give your child a pacifier only at naptime and bedtime, you can lower his chance of getting ear infections by 33 percent.
When a baby drinks from a bottle while she's flat on her back, the formula (or pumped milk) tends to pool in her mouth, increasing the chance for liquid to flow into the middle ear and cause infection. Breastfeeding is thought to be less risky because the nipple is farther back in a baby's mouth, which prevents milk from pooling, and the flow of milk is more controlled and slower than it is from a bottle.
As a rule: When your child is drinking, her head should be higher than her stomach so the liquid can't flow from the eustachian tube into the middle ear. If you're bottle-feeding your baby, try to hold her as upright as possible while she’s feeding and don't allow her take a bottle to bed.
Just as tobacco particles can cause congestion that leads to ear infections, so can the common cold. Limit your baby's exposure to large crowds and avoid having her held by people who are sick. Once your child gets older, encourage her to wash her hands often, especially before touching her eyes, nose, or mouth.
And also make an effort to keep your child away from sick kids. Again, ear infections aren't contagious, but the colds that can cause them are.
If you think allergies could be causing your child's ear infections, be proactive by removing as many allergenic items from your home as possible. For instance, bar pets from your child's sleeping area, keep the rooms where she spends the most time as free of dust as possible, and opt for bedding without feathers or down.
A 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at Prevnar, a vaccine that protects against pneumococcal bacteria, which can cause ear infections, meningitis, and other diseases. The study found that Prevnar has helped reduce the number of infants and toddlers who develop frequent ear infections. The vaccine works only for certain strains of bacteria that cause ear infections, say experts, so it's not foolproof, but it is a very good idea.
If your child suffers from recurrent ear infections, her pediatrician might want to put her on antibiotics for an extended period of time to prevent future infections. Another treatment option for children with chronic ear infections is the insertion of a tympanostomy tube into the ear, which allows fluid to drain from — and air to return to— the middle ear. If ear infections seem to be hindering your child's hearing or learning, consider discussing these prevention options with your pediatrician.