Hearing impairments in infants should be identified early to avoid lifelong learning problems, says Marion P. Downs of the Deafness Research Foundation.

"If training doesn't start in the first year of life, many may never come up to their potential in language skills despite heroic remedial training," says Downs.She says the critical period for language development is the first 24 months, and if a child can't hear the language, there will be a permanent reduction in language skill.

"Both the child who is deaf at birth and the infant with ear infections must be identified in the first year of life if their language is to become adequate," says Downs, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado Health Science Center in Denver.

If there is a history of hearing loss in the family or if the mother was exposed to German measles during pregnancy, she says, the infant could be a candidate for testing.

Other warning signs, she says, are premature babies with low birth weight, babies with blood incompatibility and those with defects of the head and neck, such as cleft palate.

"Even when a baby has a very profound hearing loss - or no hearing at all -early identification helps," says Downs. "Such babies can begin to learn `sign' language in their first year.

"In addition to learning signing, these babies are taught to watch lips, to learn to read very young and to get as much hearing through a hearing aid as they possibly can. They may even be taught what speech feels like on a special instrument - a total learning program procedure."