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 2 years old. The first four years of a child’s life are very important in physical development as well as in forming emotional, learning, and communication skills. Because of this, babies with hearing loss often experience 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 when it truly counts is to take your baby to an audiologist for an evaluation, if screening results suggest further follow up is warranted.
All newborns have their hearing screened after birth, before discharge from the hospital. Your baby’s first hearing screen 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 developmental disorders. All infants with irregular screening results should get a more thorough hearing assessment from a pediatric audiologist.
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, an earwax blockage, or an 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.
If your baby was referred from the hospital screen for additional testing we will begin with an auditory brainstem response (ABR) test, which measures the response of a baby’s hearing nerve using electrodes. The ABR appointment is usually about three 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. This test is similar to the screening your baby had in the hospital, but at our clinic we have more sophisticated equipment. If you baby is unable to maintain a deep sleep during the appointment, the evaluation will have to rescheduled.
If your baby was referred from a home birthing center and has not yet had a hearing screen, we will begin with a diagnostic otoacoustic emissions test (OAE). OAE testing uses a microphone in the ear canal to calculate an infant’s hearing sensitivity. The mic emits various tones and then measures the reflection of the sound’s echo as it returns back through the inner ear, middle ear, and ear canal. This test also requires a very still baby but is generally completed in 20 minutes.