I thought my son was naughty but he had a hearing problem

The first inkling that my son Rufus might have an issue with his hearing was at his two-year health check, which took place a few weeks after my second child was born.

Unfortunately both children were recovering from a (perfectly timed) bout of chicken pox, which combined with the usual sleep deprivation made for a predictably unhinged couple of weeks.

The health worker sat Rufus at a table with various cars, Lego men and chairs from a dolls house on it. She then asked him to pass certain objects. In his usual way, he totally ignored her and found it more fun to throw the objects across the room.

The health worker asked whether I thought my child had hearing problems. In my paranoid haze of stress and sleeplessness, I thought she was the crazy one. I presumed he was a typical two year-old exuberant boy who had very selective hearing. I got out of there as quick as I could.

About six months later, however, Rufus’s nursery had a quiet word with me as well. It seemed like everyone was finding it difficult to get through to him. He never listened to what people were telling him; if anything, he ended up doing precisely the opposite.

Moreover, his language seemed quite far behind the rest of his cohort. (Again, I had put that down to his general character and boyishness).

The nursery’s intervention mobilised me to take Rufus to our GP. The doctor was immediately concerned by one of his middle ears which looked red and inflamed.

We were referred to an ears, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who carried out a further examination. He was brilliant. Rufus was given a big toy bus and some people who were the passengers.

He was told to put a passenger in the bus whenever he heard a whistle blow. The specialist then produced a range of whistle noises from high to low frequency. Rufus loved the game. It was perfect as he is obsessed by anything with wheels.

The specialist concluded that he was not hearing low frequency sounds, with one ear being particularly blocked. He also discovered that Rufus’s tonsils and adenoids were unusually large.

(They are measured from Grade 1 to 4, with 4 being the most inflamed; Rufus was a Grade 3). The biggest problem that large adenoids and tonsils cause is something called obstructive sleep apnea: difficulty breathing at night.

This made sense, as Rufus always snored like a water buffalo and would tend to wake several times during the night, seemingly for no reason.

The specialist also thought there might be a behavioural impact: because Rufus was getting less quality sleep, he was becoming chronically overtired and, paradoxically, more hyperactive.

The specialist recommended that Rufus should have grommets inserted into both ears and his tonsils and adenoids at least reduced if not removed altogether (a decision that could only really be made when he was under general anaesthetic).

Once we got the operation date, we rolled the pitch with Rufus (Richard Scarry has a particularly good story about a rabbit having her tonsils removed and ending up with a massive bowl of pink ice cream).

The hospital itself was brilliant: the nursing staff were sweet and he was actually really excited to be there and seeing the ambulances outside. We had huge fun playing games before the op. The most difficult part was not letting him eat or drink anything – he is normally so greedy – but the electric moving bed managed to be helpful distraction.

The worst part for me was holding him as they administered the general anaesthetic and feeling like I tricked him by saying it would all be OK, and then he just went floppy in my arms.

The actual operation took about an hour. We were then summoned to collect him from the theatre. It was pretty upsetting: he was sobbing, totally disorientated and there was blood coming out his ears and mouth.

Although this is (apparently) a completely normal reaction for a little person after a general anaesthetic, it is still alarming and it was difficult to get him to settle for about an hour. I managed to climb into bed with him and hug him to sleep.

Cuddles with mummy after the operation
Cuddles with mummy after the operation


When he woke up, he seemed completely untouched by it all: and started demanding ice cream and chips (my husband went out in the rain to buy a Happy Meal from MacDonald’s).

In terms of pain and recovery, the worst part of the operation was actually the tonsils out rather than the grommets.

The surgeon was very insistent about giving him paracetemol and ibuprofen alternatively every three hours, including through the night. I had alarms set on my phone and it was like having a newborn again: but the dream feed just happened to be a syringeful of pharmaceuticals.

I stuck rigidly to this and after a week he was almost back to normal – a much quicker recovery that I had initially feared.

There doesn’t seem to have been any long-term negative impact: he has bespoke ear plugs which he has to wear for bath-time and swimming. Better still, his speech and language is now as it should be.

In fact, the only problem now is that I can’t shut him up.


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