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Why does my toddler keep covering his ears, and could it be a sign of ear infection?

Children’s Health Ear, Nose & Throat

I've noticed my 11 month old child continuously place his hands over both his ears. I am not sure if it's something to worry about. What could be causes for this, and could it be a sign of ear infection?

DOCTOR’S ANSWER (2)

Toddlers are new to the world and are constantly exploring new things. During this period they may try to communicate or express themselves by certain actions or gestures and covering their hands over their ears is one of them. Most of the time, these actions are innocuous. Some possible reasons for this include:

1. Sensitivity to sound - if your environment is noisy, certain sound may be too loud or cause discomfort to your toddler. Sometimes, the increased sensitivity to sound and other stimuli in the environment may be due to Autism Disorders. To overcome this, the child may cover both ears to keep himself/herself comfortable. However, a child with autism are likely to exhibit other problems such as difficulty in maintaining eye contact or socializing with other children.

2. Ear infections - A child with an ear infection may have cover his/her ears because of pain, discomfort or have a blocked ear. Other common symptoms indicative of a possible ear infection include irritability, poor feeding and fever. Ear infections are more often one sided rather than both sides. It is also possible for toddlers to insert foreign bodies (e.g. beads) in their ear canal, resulting in ear discomfort. Again this is usually more common in one ear. 

3. Nervousness or fear - covering their ears may be a protective mechanism used by toddlers to make them feel "safe" or comfortable especially in crowded areas or when exposed to new experiences.

I would suggest visiting a general practitioner or a pediatrician for a general assessment first if this habbit has been persistent for a while or if you are worried. If there is troublesome ear infection or suspicion of hearing loss requiring the input of an ENT Specialist, he or she can refer accordingly. Some of the warning signs that this is more than just a coping mechanism include:

1. Behavioural issues, trouble socializing/interacting with others and delay in speech and language development (suggesting a possible Autism Disorder)

2. Ear pain (if the child is able to express this), irritability, poor feeding, fever or delayed in speech/language development (suggesting a possible ear infection)

Hope this helps and all the best.


Dr Gan Eng Cern
MBBS, MRCS, MMed, FAMS

38 Irrawaddy Road #08-45
Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre
Singapore 329563


898 views 18 Aug 2018

It is quite common to notice your toddler covering his or her ears and it is usually nothing to worry much about.

The top reason for little kids to do this is because they feel overly stimulated by too much sound or loud noises. Pretty much what we would do too as adults if we heard irritating or loud sounds around us. So it is a sort of protective reflex.

The next most common reason is that they may feel scared and this may represent an emotional reaction to what is going on around them. The world can be a pretty frightening place for little ones as they are still finding their feet and learning about the great unknown out there. 

Of course, if you notice that your toddler isn’t eating well, is running a fever, being crabby for no good reason or keeps tugging at his ears repeatedly, especially if he has just suffered a bad cold or flu, then he may have an underlying ear infection and perhaps trying to tell you that his ears are painful by touching his ears. Your doctor can perform a quick examination of his ears inside with a special tool called an otoscope, to tell you whether this is the case. 

As Dr Gan mentioned too, though less commonly, behavioural issues may present in this manner to suggest an underlying condition such as autism. However, there are usually other warning signs like the lack of eye contact and difficulty interacting socially with adults as well as other kids which would point more towards autism and its associated spectrum of behavioural disorders.

I just want to reassure you that in the vast majority of cases where little kids cover their ears, it is a way of protecting themselves from unpleasant or loud sound stimuli. 


Dr Annabelle Leong
MBBS (Hons)(London), BSc (Hons), DOHNS (England), FRCS-ORLHNS (England)

The ENT Clinic

Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital
38 Irrawaddy Road, #07-46/47
Singapore 329563


883 views 18 Aug 2018
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Disclaimer: Any answers provided are for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor immediately. Always seek the advice of your doctor before starting or changing treatment.

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