Very young children who attend day-care centers or live in crowded conditions are more likely to develop middle-ear infections and fluid in their ears, which can retard language development, two Penn State researchers have found.

Preliminary results of a five-year study of children in day-care centers revealed that these children have as much as three times the amount of fluid in their ears as children who stay at home with their mothers, according to Lynn Feagans, professor of human development and family studies, and Ingrid Blood, associate professor of communication disorders.

"It's a problem," said Feagans. "The fluids can last up to nine months after the infection is gone . . . and this is at a time when young children are learning speech and language."

The study involves weekly examinations of 50 children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years who attend several day-care centers.

Middle-ear disease is most common during the first two years of life; the initial ear infection usually follows an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold.

According to the study, many parents are unaware of some of the infections and learned of them only as a result of the weekly exams. That is because while bacterial infections are painful, viral infections produce no symptoms but can affect hearing and speech.

Undetected infections can cause problems for day-care workers trying to improve language skills, Feagans said. Temporary hearing loss requires special attention, not the kind of group activities day-care centers usually provide.

"The child with a middle-ear infection needs more quiet surroundings and more one-on-one care," Feagans said. "Many times, day-care workers don't even realize the child has an ear infection."

In a previous study, Feagans found that chronic, untreated ear infections can cause language problems for children in elementary school.