Like any other surgery requiring anesthesia, cochlear implantation in the first few years of life carries potential risks, which makes it important to assess the potential benefits. This study introduces a new method to assess the effect of age at implantation on cochlear implant outcomes: developmental trajectory analysis (DTA). DTA compares curves representing change in an outcome measure over time (i.e. developmental trajectories) for two groups of children that differ along a potentially important independent variable (e.g. age at intervention). This method was used to compare language development and speech perception outcomes in children who received cochlear implants in the second, third or fourth year of life. Within this range of age at implantation, it was found that implantation before the age of 2 resulted in speech perception and language advantages that were significant both from a statistical and a practical point of view. Additionally, the present results are consistent with the existence of a ‘sensitive period’ for language development, a gradual decline in language acquisition skills as a function of age.