Nearly three of every 1,000 babies are born with some form of hearing loss.
In most cases, however, hearing issues aren’t discovered in children until they are at least two years old. The first four years of a child’s life are hugely important in physical development as well as in forming emotional, learning and communication skills. Because of this, babies with moderate to severe hearing loss often experience major developmental setbacks.
Newborn hearing loss is very difficult to detect, which is why many cases go undiagnosed for months or even years. Often, the only way to identify and treat a hearing loss problem when it truly counts is to take your baby to an audiologist for an infant hearing evaluation.
All newborns have their hearing screening after birth, before discharge from the hospital. False positives for hearing loss are common in newborn screenings. Your baby’s first hearing screening will likely be performed within a few hours or days of birth at the hospital. Rather than a diagnosis, screenings are administered in order to help parents identify a potential problem as early as possible, which can prevent major developmental disorders. All infants with irregular screening results should get a more thorough hearing assessment from a pediatric audiologist.
If your baby was referred from the hospital screen for additional testing, we will begin with a diagnostic Otoacoustic Emissions Test (OAE). OAE testing uses a microphone and earphone to calculate an infant’s hearing abilities by measuring the reflection of a sound’s echo as it passes through the ear canal, middle ear and inner ear. This test is similar to the screening test your baby had in the hospital but at our clinic we have more sophisticated equipment which allows us study the echoes as they are recorded.
If necessary we will move on to an Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR) test, which measures the response of a baby’s hearing nerve using electrodes. The ABR appointment is usually about 3 hours and requires the baby to be in a deep sleep. This test is a great tool for evaluating the entire auditory system. In our clinic ABRs are used for assessing hearing loss from birth through 3 months. When babies get much older than 3 months, their sleep patterns change and a non-sedated ABR is much less likely to be accurate.
Hearing loss in infants is usually the result of a temporary, treatable condition. The tests used in newborn hearing screenings are accurate; however, they can’t reveal what is causing the irregular results. In most cases, irregular screening results indicate an easily treatable problem like a fluid buildup, earwax blockage or ear infection. In other cases, though, the tests identify permanent congenital hearing loss that requires treatment as soon as possible. It’s important to continue following up on irregular newborn hearing screening results.
It’s critical to identify permanent hearing loss symptoms as early as possible in infants, so regularly retesting your child’s hearing is recommended. Talk to an audiologist to find out how frequently you should test your child’s hearing throughout their developmental years.