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Cochlear Implant Considerations for Parents of Deaf Children

By Nancy Flanders, Parenting Squad 1/10/12

Cochlear implants (CI) seem nothing short of a miracle, especially in light of the famous video of a young woman hearing her voice for the first time. For parents of babies who are diagnosed with hearing loss, the initial shock of the news and little understanding about what it is actually like to be deaf leaves them struggling to decide whether to have doctors fit their child with a CI, or have their child grow up deaf to make the decision for himself down the road. For many parents, the initial response is to give their child the gift of sound.

The decision isn't that simple.

Quality of Life

As with any advancement in medical science, CIs have benefits for those who receive them. A 2010 study published in Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, children with a CI ranked their quality of life equal to that of their normal hearing peers.

This may be because deaf children who attend "mainstream" public schools often report feeling isolated and have a difficult time making friends. In these cases, cochlear implants seem to help ease that loneliness and give these children a more "normal" life. However, children with deafness who attend schools for the deaf don't have these same socialization concerns. For these children, cochlear implants may actually separate them from the deaf community they have become a part of.

Language Skills

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that profoundly deaf children who received a CI at a young age developed language skills comparable to their normal-hearing peers. In the past, children with hearing loss were not often diagnosed until age two. According to the NIH, these children often fell behind in language, cognitive, and social skills, and were limited in their career opportunities.

According to the National Association of the Deaf, it is important to remember that despite the findings by the NIH,

"Cochlear implantation is a technology that represents a tool to be used in some forms of communication, and not a cure for deafness. Cochlear implants provide sensitive hearing, but do not impart the ability to understand spoken language through listening alone. In addition, they do not guarantee the development of cognition or reduce the benefit of emphasis on parallel visual language and literacy development."

Risks and Side Effects

As with any surgery, implanting a CI carries the usual risks. In addition, it also carries the dangers of injury to the facial nerve, meningitis, fluid leakage, infection, dizziness/vertigo, tinnitus (buzzing sound in the ear), disturbance to taste, and inflammation. In addition, patients may need to have the implant removed if it malfunctions or an infection occurs. They will also deal with lifestyle changes and may lose their residual hearing.

"Many deaf children are born with residual hearing and with the aid of a hearing aid are able to pick up certain speech sounds, and also identify certain sound frequencies that can aid in survival such as a fire alarm, or siren," explains Jennifer La Roe Diggans, student sign language interpreter and child of deaf parents. "Once a child has a CI their residual hearing may be wiped out completely. When they don't have their implant turned on they are 'stone deaf,' unable to hear anything at all."

Additional side effects can occur, but major problems with a CI in children have proven to be rare.

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